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Pandemic Breathed New Life Into Market At A Time When People Were Desperate To Gather
By Tina Traster
Two years ago, two Piermont entrepreneurs took control of a fledgling farmers market and began breathing new life into it slowly. The pandemic, a time of lockdowns and rattled nerves, inadvertently put the Piermont Farmers market on a map that extends regionally to New Jersey, Westchester and even Manhattan. And it has stimulated economic activity in Piermont, which counts on visitors to sustain its boutiques, restaurants, and art galleries.
“Sometimes there are silver linings to bad things,” said Joe Serra, co-founder of the nonprofit that operates the market on Sundays in Parelli Park. “People who never went to farmers’ markets found them, while others rediscovered them.”
During the heart of the shut-in darkness, farmers markets were – and remain – a whiff of fresh air. Last year, especially in the spring when people were itching to leave their homes, farmers markets teemed with activity and hopefulness. It was as close to normal as many could get –even if you had to wear a mask, social distance, and resist giving a friend a hug.
“There weren’t a whole lot of things people could do,” said Serra. “And they were cooking more than ever. We saw a surge of people looking to connect, to shop outdoors, to find something to do.”
In 2020, the 10 am to 3 pm weekly Sunday market drew on average 1,200 visitors per market, compared with 500 in 2019. Due to vibrancy and demand – and ongoing pandemic challenges – Serra maintained an outdoor market throughout the year.
Serra recalls just two years ago when he was “begging vendors to join.” The marketer did whatever he needed to do to round out the selection, including offering incentives helping with staffing. “We did a lot of heavy lifting,” said Serra. “We personally jumped behind the stand, we got personally involved.”
That paid off. Today, there is a vendors’ waiting list to participate in the market, and Serra has to rotate some in order to accommodate demand.
“The farmers market has been a great attraction to bring visitors into the town,” said Food Is Med Farms vendor Murugan Elu. “They have done an excellent job of bringing bona fide vendors so the locals have opportunity not only to shop but also to bring the families and friends” to the market.
The Piermont farmers market is one of just a few robust markets in Rockland County – ironically a county once populated with farms. It grew to more than 20 vendors in 2020, up from 14 when Joe Serra and Bill Walsh convinced M&T in Piermont to sever its ties with Down To Earth, the company that for 14 years ran the outdoor Piermont Farmer’s Market in the bank’s parking lot. During Down To Earth’s tenure, the market grew anemic, with around eight weekly vendors and relatively poor attendance, even though Down To Earth runs several relevant markets in the Hudson Valley.
Serra and Walsh had experience with selling artisanal products at the time of the takeover. The pair ran the Souk, an indoor winter Sunday farmers’ market for several years. The market typically attracted a dozen vendors and those seeking a gathering space with art, a wood-burning stove and home-brewed coffee. The pair did not reopen the Souk in 2020 and for now have no plans to do so in 2021.
While the organic produce, breads, herbals, locally-sourced products and other goods are the main attraction at the current market, Serra understands the value of good real estate. Initially, when the market opened last May amid the pandemic in Flywheel Park, it brought the village to life. Subsequently, the market moved to Parelli Park, adjacent to the river with its Hudson River School of Painting vistas. Then, in colder climes, the market shifted to both the M&T parking lot, and to the Piermont Library parking lot to create more shield from winter elements, including away from the grass and onto plowable surfaces during the snowy season.
The market will be participating in the Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program (FMNP), which provides checks to women, infants and children through the Women, Infants and Children Program (WIC) and to seniors through the Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP) for purchase of locally grown, fresh fruits and vegetables. Fresh fruits and vegetables can be purchased with checks at farmers’ markets from June – November 30.
Serra noted the pandemic brought about a change in how people shop for food.
“During the pandemic, there was a shortage of meat, so people came to the markets for farm-raised chicken and beef,” Serra said. “Businesses couldn’t keep up with the demand.”
As life and commerce normalize, the market remains robust. While traffic may have dropped a sliver from the height of COVID’s crest, visitors pulse through the market every Sunday, making vendors and shoppers happy, while adding an injection of energy to Rockland’s riverfront village.
“Farmers’ markets are important to the identity of a community,” Serra said. “It’s something residents are proud of.”
PHOTO CREDITS: Betsy Franco-Feeney