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Local charm and fresh finds endure at Brookline Farmers’ Market

Customers grab their produce from the Brookline Farmers' Market on a Thursday in June 2024. Photo by Noah Berz
June 24, 2024  Updated June 27, 2024 at 6:17 p.m.

Standing on the corner of Centre and Beacon Streets on a summer Thursday afternoon, you might hear the tinkle of a rusty tin cowbell as Brookline Farmers’ Market Co-Director Abram Faber welcomes in a crowd of awaiting customers to buy fresh fish and local produce.

Faber rings the same bell that his predecessor Arlene Flowers rang, and which founder Dorothy Esterquest rang before her.

A nonprofit organization, the Brookline Farmers’ Market is home to 30 vendors who come every Thursday to sell their homemade goods and fresh produce to eager Brookline customers.

The market opened for business on July 19th, 1979 despite controversy surrounding its creation within Brookline’s Town Meeting. The president of the local Chamber of Commerce opposed the idea, citing health hazards and concern for competing local businesses, and the proposal was approved under the condition that the market would be shut down should any such worry come into fruition.

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45 years later, it now serves an average of 1,200 customers each week from June to November, according to Faber.

“The farmers market just seems to [have] this magical energy,” Faber said. “It is a community of people who really enjoy speaking face to face … it’s been going on for 46 years, and it’s pretty perfect the way it is.”

A family checks out Golden Rule Honey at the Brookline Farmer’s Market in June 2024. Photo by Noah Berz

Beloved by customers and vendors alike

The Brookline Farmers’ Market is and has been a breeding ground for community since its founding.

“I love the local produce, the variety of things,” Judith Kates, a Brookline resident, said one recent Thursday. “It means a lot to support the local farmers. And it’s a great social experience, too. I always run into somebody, which is a lot of fun.”

Some farmers’ markets require vendors to reapply for their spot each year, but Brookline extends a yearly invite to every vendor, many of whom have been returning for more than 30 years.

Selling at the Brookline Farmers’ Market can be more lucrative than wholesale distribution and it allow small-scale farms and businesses to get direct feedback on new enterprises from their customers.

“It’s nice to have an idea of what to make, what’s popular, what’s not popular,” said Alyssa Jollimore, head cheesemaker at Smith’s Country Cheeses. “For example, dill havarti is pretty popular here, so I know that that’s a cheese that we’ll have to make more of in the future.”

Many vendors travel to a different market each day of the week, taking advantage of their market benefits, while others stay partial to Brookline. The food and community attract regular customers as well as perennial vendors.

“I’ve done several markets over the years and the only one I still do is Brookline, because it’s my favorite,” said Charlie Trombetta, a co-director of the market along with Faber and Kate Stillman. “The people are what make any market good or bad, and I really like the people in Brookline.”

How it’s paid for, and surviving Covid

The market’s main source of funding comes from the fees vendors pay for tents, display space and parking, but occasionally the market will receive external funding for special projects. In 2021, the market hosted a fundraiser to replenish funds post-COVID, and this year it received a grant from the Brookline Disability Commission to make a bathroom wheelchair accessible. Occasionally, the market also raises money via GoFundMe for its SNAP benefits program, which began in 2016.

Its mission is not to make money but to provide a physical space for farms to connect with customers, said Faber, who ran Clear Flour Bakery until selling it to new owners in 2017.

“We base the amount that we ask for on the market being a break-even enterprise,” he said.

Clear Flour Bread is a regular vendor at the Brookline Farmers’ Market. Photo by Noah Berz

The market was not immune to the COVID struggles that businesses faced worldwide, but its organizers were able to keep it open through the worst of the pandemic.

In 2020, the market cut about half of its vendors and limited its customer capacity in order to adhere to social distancing recommendations made by the Massachusetts state government. Customers were also required to wear masks and forbidden from touching produce before purchasing (a restriction imposed only on farmers’ markets), and the market’s website gained a pre-order feature in order to keep attendance numbers down.

“Some areas’ markets just closed,” Faber said. “We almost did because it seemed almost undoable to comply with all the regulation, but I think knowing I was the steward of a market that had a history of over 40 years of continuous operation at that time, I couldn’t let the market break that long tradition.”

The vendors and co-directors were able to slowly recover the market’s to its former self over the next two years. By 2022, vendors and customers returned in pre-COVID numbers.

“When we returned to normal, it was such a relief and felt like so much fun to be able to have customers mingle again and touch and smell and feel all the wonderful food,” Faber wrote.

Farmers’ markets like Brookline’s are considered by some to be a more environmentally friendly alternative to grocery stores that stock products flown in from around the world. On average, farmers’ market produce only has to travel 50 miles or less by car to reach its customers, and it’s often picked the morning of, staying fresh longer than supermarkets.

“I think it’s a good way for us to get closer to the food that we eat and the systems that are making it possible for us,” said Isabelle Levy, who is coming on as the market’s manager later this summer. “There’s a lot of folks that don’t know what is in season, because [they] go to the grocery store and have access to the same produce all year round.”

Customers say the market’s atmosphere is one of the things that brings them back.

Amy Buckman, a Brookline resident, said she prefers the market to farm shares she has tried in the past.

“It’s worth it to me to not get it more conveniently, because it’s so pleasant to shop here,” she said.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the location of the farmers’ market.