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Editorial: Hopeful signs for Amherst-area farming economy

Support for farmers and all things created locally is strong and getting stronger in Amherst, with an expanding farmers market, an indoor marketplace preparing to sign a lease downtown and a food co-op taking shape.

On top of that, the first growing season at a new farm — The Book and Plow — at Amherst College is under way and the University of Massachusetts has been getting national recognition for the permaculture gardens carved out of under-used lawns on campus. Grow Food Amherst, a group aimed at getting 350 people or 1 percent of the town’s population interested in agriculture in some way has met its membership goal and is holding regular meetings and workshops. The next one is a jam-making session at the Bangs Community Center Aug. 22.

It is great to see such public enthusiasm for consuming local produce. The energy of those planning the indoor market, called the All Things Local Store, is infectious as they seek to sign up 300 members in an effort to raise $15,000 by the end of the month to secure the downtown storefront they have picked out on North Pleasant Street. They are also in the process of trying to amass $300,000 to buy the kitchen equipment and remodel that space occupied by the Souper Bowl restaurant, which closed recently. They are hoping to attract some local investors willing to make loans. “People are so excited about this,” said organizer Tina Clarke.

If the indoor marketplace opens this fall, as Clarke predicts, it will be unique in this area as it will showcase, year-round, both local growers and craftspeople selling their wares. They get to keep 80 percent of their profits while contributing the other 20 percent to pay rent and utilities for the store. Clarke, who describes it as an old-fashioned market, said she saw the concept at work out in Wooster, Ohio, when she was there on business. Organizers of the All Things Local Store intend to add a healthy dose of fun to good health and good business by offering workshops, food demonstrations and parties.

Such a lively place is certain to be a draw beyond Amherst’s borders and can only be a boon to the downtown.

Meanwhile, plans for the Amherst Community Market, a worker-, consumer- run co-op, are moving ahead with fundraising and a logo-design competition, with a July 31 submission deadline. Similar to the River Valley Market grocery in Northampton, it harkens back to the Yellow Sun Co-op that existed in downtown Amherst years ago that many locals wistfully recall.

At the same time, the Amherst Farmers Market is adding four to six new vendors to the 30 who set up shop downtown each Saturday from April through November. And it is expanding from its location in the Spring Street parking lot onto Boltwood Avenue in front of the Lord Jeffery Inn. Assistant Town Manager David Ziomek said the market’s planning committee is working with the Lord Jeff to kick off the expansion with pizzazz — maybe cooking demonstrations and other events. The date has not yet been determined, as there are some details yet to be worked out, he said. He pointed out that the Wednesday Kendrick Park farmers market, also downtown, is going strong,too. This will be its third summer. “It’s very exciting that new people, new farmers want to get involved in our downtown,” he said.

Farming is a difficult business. Many local growers have been forced to diversify operations and take other measures to keep going. But seeing local food as a desirable commodity is a positive trend. And such public signs of support are indeed heartening.

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