By Eileen Weber
Good news for Ridgefield residents! The Farmers Market Co-Op is now up and running on Catoonah Street just off the main drag between the fire station and the post office. The store had a “soft” opening in late October with a “grand” opening expected on November 19th.
But, Ridgefield residents know what it’s like to have a farmers’ market in town. They used to have two. Then, they both disappeared.
Several years ago, a building developer took away a green plot on Catoonah Street, the site of an outdoor farmers’ market. Just this past spring, The Ridgefield Press reported the Lounsbury House Community Center farmers’ market shut down after three years. Goodbye, fresh veggies.
But there’s a happy ending—and a little bit of irony—to this story. The co-op occupies a building that sits on land once occupied by the now-defunct outdoor farmers’ market. Ridgefield Bicycle was the previous building owner . (The company has since moved to Danbury Road.) While the bike shop was popular, residents mourned the loss of the outdoor farmer’ market. As a way to reset karma, owners Sean and Jacqui Dowd are sponsoring it by covering the cost of the four-year lease on the building while co-op founder Sandy Sutila just pays for utilities. She gives the Dowds a lot of credit for getting her market off the ground.
One customer popped in while I was there to join the co-op’s membership program. “This is such a great idea,” she chirped. “This used to be my favorite bike shop!”
And what makes it such a great idea? The co-op is all about the farmers. Who loves the idea of manning a farm stand all day? Not farmers. And, none of them like to compete with each other, either. Like many other markets, it stinks when you’re the umpteenth farm with arugula, beets, and potatoes just like the guy in the next booth. Sutila gives them a place to sell their stuff without the hassle. They agree ahead of time on the goods provided, set the price, and get 80% of the revenue. The other 20% goes to overhead charges. Win-win!
The market has two floors. The lower level is filled with baskets of gorgeous produce and a refrigerated area with dairy, eggs, and meats. The top floor is stocked with crafts, handmade soaps, flavored oils, maple syrup, and other goods. She even has products from Paul’s Custom Pet Food. (Check them out in a previous article on FGFG.) The walls throughout the space are covered in original art from the Ridgefield Guild of Artists.
Customers can buy a membership, which is either $10 per month or $100 per year. Open Tuesdays through Sundays, members get first dibs on products from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. each morning. Regular shoppers can stop by after 11 a.m. What makes the co-op different from a CSA is that it tends to operate like a local grocery store. You don’t have a pre-determined list of items to pick up at a designated time each week. Rather, you can pop in and pick up what you want, just like a grocery stor. The membership means it’s owned and operated by the people who shop there every week.
Brook Pieri lives on Catoonah Street. About a month ago, she just happened to be walking past and wanted to see what it was all about. She left after signing up for a membership.
“It’s a feel-good place,” she said. “I love that local artisan energy and beauty. The prices are reasonable and it just makes me eat better.”
Pieri remarked she doesn’t have to think about the food she’s buying for her family. She knows it’s organic and the farmers are all local and trusted.
“It has to be organic otherwise I’d get in trouble,” Sutila explained. “Farms go through such a tough time to be organic, they don’t want their stuff in baskets next to stuff that’s not.”
Shortly after Pieri signed up, Kirsten Salley also became a member in much the same way. She drove past and decided to duck in. For her, it’s a great location because it is the nearest food stop before heading to any major grocery store.
“It’s the only place I know you can get really good chicken,” she replied. “Whenever I get meat, I get it from there.”
Sutila has chalkboards throughout the space letting you know which vendors have products available. On a recent visit, she listed local Ridgefield farms Apple Ridge, Horseshoe, and The Hickories. She also had surrounding Connecticut farms like Meetinghouse, Nature View, Stietzel Family, Sunnyview, and Simpaug. Bordering New York farms were Farmer Ground Millers, Hawthorne Valley Dairy, Old Chatham, Oliverea Schoolhouse, Ronnybrook Dairy, and Stony Brook Oils.
“The list of farms will change seasonally,” Sutila mentioned. “We’ll definitely have more New York farms during the winter because they’ve got more land space for greenhouses. But come spring and summer, that list will be flopping all over the place!”
For Megan Robertson at Simpaug Farms, the invitation to sell produce came at the perfect time. The farmers’ markets she was involved in for the summer and early fall were starting to close for the season. She needed a new outlet.
“We don’t have a farm stand, so we needed a way for customers to see what we’ve got,” said Robertson. “We didn’t have a place to send them—until now.”
Simpaug regularly supplies Farmers Market Co-op with tomatoes, eggs, onions, herbs, leafy greens, and winter squash. The farm has a professional kitchen so they are considering canning their produce and selling it on Sutila’s top floor later this year.
“This opens up an opportunity for us,” she remarked, “but we’re all still figuring it out.”
Figuring it out is exactly what Sutila has been doing for the past two years. Growing up in Ohio, the concept of a co-op was not unfamiliar. She just got tired of driving around to all the different farms and farmers’ markets to get the products she needed. That’s when she decided to open her own business.
To say that she had to jump through fiery hoops in order to make her brainchild become a reality is an understatement. She remarked that if this was Vermont, she could have thrown a co-op together in just a few days. But in Connecticut, Willimantic and now Ridgefield are the only two in the state.
“It was a logistical nightmare to get approved,” she recounted. “They don’t understand the concept here. There were at least six other people in the state trying to get approved and they all gave up.”
When starting a co-op, it’s pretty standard practice to get members signed up ahead of time to provide seed money. But Sutila did it a little backwards.
“I put the money up front when I didn’t have any members,” she said. “That’s a big no-no in the co-op world. It’s putting the cart before the horse.”
In the first nine days, 53 members signed up. She needs 300 by December to stay open. But while growing the membership has been a priority, it did not take her long to grow the farms involved. She started with the list of organic farms from the Department of Agriculture. Then, she joined CT NOFA. In one way or another, she found the farms or the farms found her.
Now, she’s got her sights set on a few new ideas. She hopes to have a recipe book for her members. When people come in talking about how good their butternut squash tasted for dinner, she wants to know how it was cooked so she can share the information.
Then, she’s hoping to include some more products for the second floor. Green Maid Organics is a bath, body, and home company that plans to close their shop in town. She wants to create a partnership with the owner so goods like green cleaning products can also be sold through the co-op.
Sutila said you’ve got to know who walks the walk and talks the talk when it comes to being organic. “It takes a lot of research to find who’s good.”
Farmers Market Co-Op is located in Ridgefield at 22 Catoonah Street. For more information, visit them on Facebook or contact them at 203-244-5847 or firstname.lastname@example.org. The store is open Tuesdays through Sundays, 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. with 10:00 a.m. to 11:00 a.m. for members only. They are closed Mondays.