Saunders, Real Estate,

Story - Food

Jul 28, 2017 11:46 AMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

As Their Scope Expands, Farm Stands And Farmers Markets Upset Some Business Owners

Jul 28, 2017 1:03 PM

As New York encourages grower-to-client sales, farmers markets have been booming. New legislation that encourages farm brewers and distillers have bolstered this phenomena, as small-scale vintners or distillers can sell their products directly to consumers, as long as they source a certain percentage of their inputs from the state.

But local business owners are frustrated, as the definition of what constitutes a farmers market has expanded. Customers can buy prepared foods and coffee, where once only vegetables were for sale.

Describing the contingent of upset owners as “a group of business people who have decided that these farmers markets have gone too far,” Elaine Jones, whose daughter Vicki Littman owns and operates Vicki’s Veggies, worries that as farm stands expand the breadth of their business, they will hurt local supermarkets and delis. Although she is happy with the new ownership of the Amagansett Farmers Market—especially since the market removed a wine kiosk that had many community members up in arms—she is concerned that the market hosts activities like knife sharpening and pizza making.

“They don’t seem to have any laws or rules,” Ms. Jones said. “They say that [New York State] Ag and Markets is their law, but we have home rule too.”

Her fears are shared by other members of the Concerned Citizens of Amagansett, who worry that the face of their small town is changing. Brent’s General Store owner Art Seacamp is also concerned about the new markets, though he did not return requests for comment.

Amber Waves Farm, after nine years of cultivating a 7.5-acre plot behind the Amagansett Farmers Market, took over ownership of the historic space this spring. The market building, which was run by Pat Struck for decades, was rented out to Eli Zabar for a few years, and most recently, the Amagansett Food Institute.

Under the new ownership, the market is markedly different, with more of an emphasis on education and produce. Although the market is still selling to-go foods like sandwiches and cold-brew iced coffee from North Fork Roasting Co., it now conducts educational programming like farmer tours on Saturdays and Sundays and offers a wide variety of produce from growers like the Milk Pail, Open Minded Organics and Balsam Farms.

“It has been very important to us to keep our dollars circulating locally,” said Amanda Merrow, co-owner of Amber Waves.

Describing their plot as a “very active 15-acre working farm,” Ms. Merrow and partner Katie Baldwin run an apprentice program that invites interested growers to spend a season, or more, learning the trade. In addition to their weekend programming, they also offer free, self-guided tours at any time and have re-tooled the beds next to the market with signs depicting commonly grown herbs like lavender and basil.

Their efforts have not been missed by the local community. Lyla Sowder-Yuson, 12, said, “Everything is based around the veggies.” Although she misses the ice cream and apple juice that were at the market last year, she thinks that the food is better this year. A full-time resident, during the year Lyla volunteers with Amber Waves through the local school.

For Ms. Merrow, these kinds of educational programs are bolstered by having a working building where Amber Waves can welcome community members in all kinds of weather. Although the farm was created as a nonprofit dedicated to outreach, their efforts have multiplied since they began operating the market.

In Montauk—home of one of the most robust farmers markets on the East End—many local stores welcome the farmers market, saying that, if anything, it is a boon to business.

“We welcome anything that helps. It adds and ambiance to the town this is special,” said Lexi Ackerson, the manager at Shine.

“Farmers markets are a great idea. They may have morphed into something less traditional but that’s okay,” said Tom Phillips of Whites Liquor Store. Pointing out that he shops at the Thursday market himself, Mr. Phillips said that although his business might be adversely impacted by the sale of locally-produced alcohol, farmers markets are, overall, good for the health of Montauk.

“Either you are a farm or you are a grocer or a restaurant,” said Fran Cirillo, of Cirillo’s Market IGA in Amagansett. “Everyone has their niche and everyone wants to pursue their livelihood, but if they keep taking and taking, the little guys are getting hurt.”

Ms. Cirillo said she supports the efforts by the Concerned Citizens of Amagansett to investigate what is being done at farmers markets, as she is also a small business owner. “Our community is changing drastically and we want it to be the way it is supposed to be,” she said.

Although she has not visited the market since its been under new ownership, she wants to make sure that markets and stands are in compliance with town codes.

However, for many farmers, having a full-service stand with salads-to-go and fresh iced tea is the only way forward. As many East End growers as pushed out of selling their produce wholesale thanks to high land and labor costs, the stand is the future of business. And it’s not enough to carry just apples. Customers want a place they can buy their weekend groceries.

“A farmer can’t just grow a field full of melons and sit down on the road and sell them for $5. A farm stand has to be a destination of sorts,” said third generation Bridgehampton grower David Falkowski, 40, of Open Minded Organics. “Mushroom Dave” got his start at farmers markets on the East End and after nearly two decades in business opened up his own stand on Butter Lane last year.

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