DEDHAM — Beyond the tables of strawberries and lettuce and garlic, the wares of the modern farmers market beckon: vegan dip, apple ice wine, lobsters, spice rub, pickles.
Todd Zylstra is lured by Jose Malary’s pitch for his magenta fruit and vegetable puree, called Doos P.K.: “Hello! Have you tried the dip of the future?”
Zylstra tries a sample, asks some questions and moves on. The Dedham resident likes the increased diversity of his town's farmers market, even if he’s more likely to stick to traditional offerings like bread and lettuce. Then he’s lured by the call from the next table: “Would you like to try our all-purpose spice rub?”
As farmers markets sprout up across Massachusetts — increasing from 139 in 2007 to 248 so far this summer — cities and towns are looking for ways to make theirs stand out from the competition.
Ashland is bringing in food trucks. Norwood offers yoga. In Dedham, vendors began selling pickles and vegan dip and seafood. Salem’s market sells organic pet treats and wine. And in Newburyport, vendors offer whoopie pies and guacamole.
Despite the enduring locavore movement, the competition for shoppers — and farmers — has gotten tougher as more communities discovered the benefits of hosting markets in their parks and squares.
After expanding dramatically through 2010, the number of farmers markets has leveled off in recent years. Several markets — including those in Bedford and Burlington — have closed because they couldn’t get enough customers.
“Many market managers are taking a much more active approach in terms of soliciting” new vendors, said Jeff Cole, executive director of the Federation of Mass. Farmers Markets. “When there were only 100 markets, managers were more passive.”
To boost their customer base even further, more markets are accepting SNAP — the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps — increasing from nine in 2007 to 120 this year.
Ironically, the multiplication of markets has created some headaches for the several hundred farmers who supply their wares. Customers are buying less at individual markets, so farmers must show up more places to make the same amount of money.
“The bottom line is there’s just not enough farmers to go around,” Cole said. “Farmers that were doing one or two markets are now doing six or eight markets.”
One new item at many markets in the past few years: wine. After the state Legislature voted late in the 2010 season to allow wine to be sold at farmers markets, many began to include local wineries. Salem’s market has three.
At Dedham’s market, John Galeros, production and sales manager of Still River Winery, was handing out sip-sized samples.
“It allows us to sell wine to people directly,” he said. “Because our product is different, it’s an apple ice wine. So it’s something that people wouldn’t necessarily try if they just saw it sitting on the shelf of a store.”
As he’s talking, two women stop by and take a sample. “Thank you,” one of them says.
“From Harvard, Mass.,” the other says. “Who would have thought?”
This is the Ashland market’s second year and organizers decided to add some unusual offerings: food trucks. First came Yummies Drive-Up, a retro truck from Uxbridge selling lobster rolls and other sandwiches. In late June, the popular Clover Food Lab made the trek from its Cambridge headquarters.
“We have volunteers who asked and asked and asked” to bring in Clover Food Lab, said Florence Seidell, one of the market’s volunteers. “We all tasted and we clamored for them.”
The Ashland market also tried to distinguish itself by offering entertainment, including a music tent with live bands each week. On a Saturday in late June, the market scheduled a Bike to Market Day, and a “Tour de Ashland’’ that included both a short, family-friendly ride, and a longer ride around town.
Building a farmers market from scratch took the town’s many volunteers hours and hours of work. “We have no farms in Ashland,” Seidell said. “We made a circle around the towns immediately around, and started asking if people had organic farms and farms that had sustainable methods, until we found the farms we needed for our market.”
For Newburyport’s market, now in its fifth year, organizers have brought in Red’s Best, a local seafood purveyor where buyers can learn the name of the fisherman, the fishing vessel, gear type, and the port where the fish were brought in. The market recently started a composting program, in which customers can buy bags and return them filled with food scraps to be taken to a composting facility. One of the market’s popular vendors sells guacamole.
“Avocados obviously do not come from our area, but they make the guacamole onsite,” said Shari Wilkinson, market founder and manager. “So you can watch the guacamole being made. They’ve been a huge hit.”
Salem’s market in Derby Square, the same spot where the market existed in the 17th century, doesn’t want to compete with downtown businesses, so ready-to-eat food like sandwiches are prohibited.
Salem was first authorized to hold its market in 1634. The market took place there for centuries, until customers began dropping off about 45 years ago after supermarkets opened.
“People were like, ‘This wasn’t modern anymore,’
The market, which reopened in 2010 and attracted about 60,000 customers last year, began accepting SNAP benefits in 2010, after it got a grant to buy a machine to process the sales.
“For us, it offered another venue for the stalls,” Sousa said. “We didn’t mind running the program for them and putting more money in their pockets.”
Some towns have raised private money to help people buying with food stamps take home more from farmers markets.
In Belmont, the first $25 of benefits that a shopper uses will buy $50 worth of food. In Ashland, the first $10 will buy $20 worthof food. The Lexington Farmers Market doubles SNAP dollars up to $20 spent, for $40 worth of food.
The state’s SNAP market is huge: About 500,000 households receive $115 million each month in benefits. Farmers markets could benefit by tapping into just a small percentage of that market, said David Webber, program coordinator for the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources.
Farmers markets used to accept food stamps, but when the state’s program moved from paper vouchers to an electronic benefit card that works like a debit card, the technology outpaced outdoor markets without electricity or phone lines.
But wireless systems have become cheaper, and both the state and federal governments offered grants to farmers markets to covers the costs of the machine that reads the electronic cards.
Joining the nutrition benefits program is just one more way for farmers markets to stay competitive.
“Just in terms of attracting people to the market, it’s good for them to accept SNAP benefits in addition to cash,” Webber said. “There’s folks on SNAP in every community in Massachusetts.”
WHERE TO BUY There’s a farmers market for practically every town and every day of the week. Find the one that suits your fancy by using our interactive map at www.boston.com/farmersmarkets.Kathleen Burge can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @KathleenBurge.