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Residents were stunned to learn on April 24 that the Westford Farmers Market was canceled for the current growing season.
The information surfaced during the selectmen’s meeting when Selectman Elizabeth Almeida said that the board had received information that “the Farmers Market is not happening this year.” [Continue below].
Town Manager Jodi Ross confirmed the news, saying she had received an emailed statement from Sustainable Westford Board member Zac Cataldo.
The statement said, in part, “It is with great sadness that the Board of Directors of Sustainable Westford announces that we will not be producing the Westford Farmers Market this upcoming season. After running the Farmers Market for 12 successful years, it has become increasingly difficult to produce a high quality, sustainable market with the vendors and services that will attract a large enough customer base to keep the market viable…”
Whole Foods Market, which opened in May 2016, is a mere 1.5 miles from the the Town Common, where the market was held, and Market Basket is a stone’s throw further down Littleton Road. The hip and mainstay grocery stores both offer organic and regular produce at reasonable prices. But Farmers Market founder Gloria Tu Gilbert said it’s not just grocery stores that cut into the foot traffic. It was also the big box stores that started selling produce, the online meal services with fresh ingredients such as Blue Apron, Fresh Direct online grocery shopping, Westford’s Community Gardens where residents grow their own produce, shares of community supported agriculture from local farms, and home gardening. The Westford market was a victim of its own success, Gilbert noted.
“All of this is really good…but for the Farmers Market, it takes a bite out of us.” she said. “It’s been successful in a really odd way.”
Since 2007 when Gilbert founded the market, it has met every Tuesday afternoon from June to October, making produce grown at local farms available. It was one of the first created in the region and shoppers flocked there in high numbers.
The market quickly turned into a social gathering spot and Gilbert capitalized on that by bringing in local musicians to perform and offering activities for children. She also engaged a team of Westford Academy students each year to help her run the operation. Vendors included Parlee Farm in Chelmsford, Hill Orchard in Westford, and Gaouette Farm of North Andover. In recent years, vendors selling foods other than fruits, vegetables and meats, such as Bagel Alley of Nashua and Purple Carrot Bread Company of Lowell, had a presence.
Gilbert created Sustainable Westford in 2010 to broaden the mission of raising awareness about sustainability. Through the years, Sustainable Westford members have seen solar panels appear on town buildings, the creation of an environmental science class at Westford Academy, and the installation of water hydration stations at the high school.
But those heady developments were tempered by the unstoppable proliferation of nearby farmers markets. Chelmsford, Acton, Carlisle and other neighboring communities created their own. But because they were smaller and less eclectic than Gilbert’s brainchild, she didn’t worry about the competition.
“There was a need 12 years ago and we were the first one in the area,” she said.
The plan was simple.
“We thought we were building community and that was the goal,” she said, noting the growth over the first five years was obvious. But the numbers are not available since Sustainable Westford did not keep statistics.
The Waning of the Market
Over time, the foot traffic waned and Gilbert said she couldn’t deny the obvious.
“It was one of those things where (you wondered), where are the people,” she said.
According to Gilbert, research shows that there are two components to a successful Farmers Market: 1.) an urban location with a dense population and 2.) a weekend meeting day.
“We don’t hit either one of them, so our feeling was, we can take a sabbatical and if we’re going to do it right, come back on a weekend,” she said.
Gilbert ran the market through the 2017 season, but while she remains on the board, she stresses that she is not the director and no one is filling that role. The Sustainable Westford website names her as a board member and the statement sent to selectmen makes it clear that the non profit organization will continue to function.
“…Going forward, we will be re-focusing our energies on the areas that we believe can bring the biggest benefit in sustainability to our community – the Healthy Kids Coalition Rainbow Snack Program, UpCycleIt!, Community Composting and community educational programs. We invite you to join us as we continue the hard work that needs to be done to move the needle on sustainability,” wrote the board members in their statement.
“I just thought it was a good time for me to take a step back,” said Gilbert. “I love what the Farmers Market did for Westford and I love what Sustainable Westford was able to achieve.”
Ross was as surprised by the market’s cancellation as residents, noting that she had invited Sustainable Westford board members to attend a selectmen’s meeting.
“I’ve been trying to get them on the agenda to find out what their plan was…obviously there’s going to be a lot of people who are not going to be happy that this is disappearing. But really it was a surprise to all of us,” said Ross.
The Community Reacts
On WestfordCAT’s Facebook page, the comments reflected disappointment. “End of an era,” said one poster. “Terrible news,” said another. “Such a bummer,” said a third. Another Facebook page, known as Westford Friends, blew up with comments and reactions.
“This is huge and a disastrous loss for the town,” said one member of the page.
Calling the Farmers Market her life’s work, Gilbert said the decision to cancel the market at least for this year was not easy.
“Bittersweet. I thought it was such a beautiful market,” she said.
UPDATE: Links and video clips were added to this story.