'Every year it grows': Westport Farmers' Market named best in CT and among the top in U.S.

WESTPORT — Though its winter season winds down on Thursday, the Westport Farmers’ Market continues to blossom as both a community gathering place and a conscious choice for meeting one’s food needs.

“For me, I’m pretty reflective at the moment about what this past year has meant,” said Lori Cochran-Dougall, the market’s executive director.

She and her organization stepped up to open the market last spring, despite the pandemic and its inherent restrictions, to great success.

Their work also gained national recognition. American Farmland Trust named it the best farmers market in Connecticut, the 10th best in the Northeast and 26th best in the country for 2020. The market had previously ranked high in the annual competition, including a third place finish for Connecticut in 2019.

And while they recognize the value they’ve brought to the community as a mainstay during a harrowing year, Cochran-Dougall said they also understand the importance of some much-needed rejuvenation before reopening May 13.

“We realized it was important for us to close and get ourselves ready for the next season,” she said.

To celebrate its last day of the winter months, the market will offer some unique events on Thursday, including a food drive to benefit both the Gillespie Center and ,food bank.

“All non-perishable food items are welcome,” Cochran-Dougall said.

“For our last day we have historically done a celebration with live music and adult beverages,” she said, but this year — following the epidemic of need and devastation experienced by many people — they decided to have an event geared toward helping others.

Some different scheduled activities will include educational demonstrations from two Staples High School siblings, Jesse and Sefra Levin, who will present material relating to their new business centered on preparedness and related skills.

The market will also introduce a woman kelp farmer, who will be joining market in the summer as vendor.

“I’m beyond excited for our next line-up,” Cochran-Dougall said, with 30 permanent vendors in place each week, along with a rotating group of a couple dozen.

“We have the strictest guidelines in the state,” she said of the requirements that have helped make it a sought-after market for customers and vendors alike. Each vendor must produce their own foods, or in the case of prepared items, include at least one locally sourced item.

“When we open this spring we will be 98 percent plastic free,” she said, noting that the remaining two percent involves items maintained by the state health department for safety.

Orna Stern, a Westport resident, said she’s thrilled to see how far the market has come in 15 years. She helped start the original market in 2006 when is was at the back of The Westport Playhouse with the aid of activist and resident Paul Newman.

“It’s really incredible to me how every year it grows,” Stern said. “It’s a great feeling in your heart.”

She noted how amazing it was to see the market striving especially during the pandemic, which clearly demonstrated a need within the community.

“It’s always busy, which means Westport needed something like this,” she said. “Westport was craving it.”

The market is not only popular with its patrons, but the vendors themselves, who place great value on it.

“We just always like Westport, even as a consumer,” said Mackenzie Brant, a farm worker with Roxbury-based Riverbank Farm, which was one of its original vendors 15 years ago.

Christopher Lea of The SoNo Bakery Company, another original vendor, agreed.

“It’s a really great privilege to come here and even to work here,” Lea said.

He said the focus on limiting waste, on real organic products and on general high quality make it an important place for people who not only care about health and quality, but see the far-reaching value of supporting a local economy.

“And it’s nice to meet the people you’re getting your food from,” he said.