When Josh Young took over management of the decade-old New Lebanon Farmers Market (NLFM) in rural upstate New York in 2020, he needed to think creatively to mitigate the upheaval caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. He didn’t anticipate those efforts would result in a new hybrid market model that would garner a major grant from the USDA, and serve as a fresh-fare blueprint for food deserts.
Like many Northeastern towns that prospered during the Industrial Era, New Lebanon declined when the passenger rail shuttered in the 1950s. The town’s only grocery store closed more than a dozen years ago. Residents had resigned themselves to the 10-plus-mile haul for shopping.
As the coronavirus rocked the supply chain, Josh Young, a freelance software engineer, and his sister, Eleanor Young, who runs a butchery and sausage-making business, took the NLFM virtual, with online ordering and weekly pickup and deliveries. It was an immediate hit.
To meet growing demand, especially during the winter, the Youngs brainstormed new approaches. Taking the farmers’ market indoors “gave us the ability to start right away, without a lot of waiting or money for overhead,” says Eleanor. With permits from the town and the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets, an initial investment of $1,000, plus a loan of about $15,000 from Berkshire Agricultural Ventures for refrigeration units, the five-days-weekly indoor market was up and running.
For its innovation, the NLFM—now a hybrid summer-fall outdoor Sunday market, virtual ordering hub and year-round volunteer-run brick-and-mortar shop—was awarded a three-year, $500,000 grant from the USDA’s Farmers Market Promotion Program. The grant covers the cost of three employees, a delivery truck, supplies and software improvements.
Today, the NLFM clears $7,000 in weekly gross sales. In addition to seasonal and local produce, dairy, meat and bread, it sells popular non-local products such as bananas, purchased wholesale and sold at retail. A rotating selection of prepared foods, such as mushroom potpie and curried green beans, are available from local makers each week.
About 30 producers participate in the NLFM, without the rental or booth fees of a traditional farmers market. They set their own prices and reap $.88 on the dollar, a nearly unheard-of margin. (A 12-percent surcharge is added to final prices to cover rent, utilities, credit card processing fees and supplies such as paper bags.) For many producers, the NLFM’s frequent social media posting and daily newsletter, which focuses on local-foods education, alleviate some of their marketing burden.
Alison Basdekis of Shaker Creek Farm in neighboring Stephentown, who sells everything from spinach to sunchokes and broiler chickens through the market, points to the biggest benefit: an increase in sales without a corresponding uptick in hours behind the booth. “It’s all very community focused, both for producers and for customers,” she says. “To have an indoor market that has excellent foods aggregated from so many different farms, with hours that work for most people, is so valuable.”
The Youngs are confident the New Lebanon Farmers Market can serve as a model for food deserts across the country. “Anyone can do this,” says Josh. “You can start small, and grow it a little bit every week. The next person to bootstrap an effort like ours will be able to point to us as an example in order to solicit capital for an even larger market.”