Published DateTILTON — Joan O'Connor's been in this position before. Four years ago, she partnered with a Concord greenhouse to start a winter farmers' market. She worked to grow that market, and by the end of the second year was proud of the vibrant weekly source for locally-produced food and goods. However, the business partner she worked with declined to renew the relationship for a third year, instead choosing to run the operation himself.
"I'm still fuming," she said, when asked about the Concord market. "They helped themselves to my market. I had to start from scratch."
O'Connor rose to the challenge, proving she could replicate her success. She was fortunate to find a much more benevolent partner in Tilon, the car dealer AutoServ, which owned an unused building on Route 3, across the street from the company's high profile main location.
Now, after two successful years running the Tilton Winter Farmers' Market, O'Connor finds herself again looking into a future without a secure location. She learned recently that AutoServ would be seeking a tenant for the building, and if they are successful in their search, she wouldn't be able to fill the same building next winter with shoppers and vendors every weekend.
At least this time, the potential parting is far more amicable. She may even be able to host a third season of winter market hosted by AutoServ, if the building is still vacant at the end of autumn. However, what she'd really like is a permanent location.
She's already proven that there's plenty of interest, both among local growers and those who would like to buy food grown by neighbors. Her first winter in Tilton, she held markets on Saturdays and saw as many as 1,200 to 1,600 shoppers visit each day. Her second season of markets, which concluded this past weekend, she held markets on both Saturdays and Sundays, seeing between 800 and 900 shoppers on each day.
Vendors were similarly enthusiastic. She was able to fit 44 of them in the space, offering meats, eggs, dairy products, and vegetables that were either produced using winter growing techniques or harvested in warmer months and frozen or stored. Were there more space, O'Connor could have welcomed many more farmers; she said she had a waiting list of about 90 vendors who wanted to set up at her market.
After a meeting yesterday with the general manager of the Tanger Outlet Mall in Tiltonl, O'Connor is happy to report that she's "in the planning stages" of offering a Friday afternoon market in that facility's parking lot during the summer months. She'll have to pare down her vendor list to 30, as that's all that she can fit in the space.
For O'Connor, who grows and sells composting worms on a farm in Henniker, the Tanger site is a welcome development, a chance for her to do what she loves for the summer. She's hoping that, by the time winter comes around again, she'll have found a place to permanently site and build a winter market. She'll consider locations along the I-93 corridor, such as Manchester or Concord, but she likes the Tilton location.
"It's been a good two years. People came to the market, it was well-received here. It worked in this region, I like it here," she said. By continuing to be a visible presence in Tilton this summer, she's hoping someone will approach her. "I need a location," she said.
Ideally, she'd like a place with an abundance of natural sunlight, one which would provide a welcome respite in the harsh cold of winter. At the least, she needs 12,000-square-feet of space, accessibility, plenty of parking and visible from highly-trafficked throughways.
"I love the challenge of making this work," she said. "There's some young farmers in this area. They are coming up hard and strong, good, ethical farmers. I want to help them make a living... We need a better marketplace, a good, established farmers' market."
Dennis Gaudet, president of AutoServ, said O'Connor can count him as one of her fans. "It's been great," he said. Financially, the market is a loss compared to what the company would realize from a long-term renter, but the relationship has proven to be a powerful public relations benefit. He would be willing to continue the partnership, in some capacity, he said.
Gaudet has become a farmers' market convert in the course of the experiment.
A self-described "city boy at heart," Gaudet said, "The closest I ever got to a farmers' market was Market Basket," referring to the nearby supermarket. However, he's come to love the freshness and intrinsic advantages of locally-produced food. "We really learned from the experience. The quality's there, I think it's better for my family."