“Everything happens as it does because the universe is as it is.”
Twelve years ago, the owners of the Woodstock Farmers’ Market began printing their signature T-shirts with that sentence, its letters encircling a yin-yang symbol formed by a fish and eggplant. Back then, they had no way of knowing how prescient those words were. On Saturday, August 27, 2011, the year-round grocery was a bustling business on track to eclipse the previous year’s record of $4.5 million in sales. By dusk the next day, the building was trashed and seemingly ruined, covered in muck from the five feet of river water that had coursed through its rooms — courtesy of Tropical Storm Irene.
“We’d had the best month we’d ever had in July,” recalls co-owner Patrick Crowl. He’s headed the market since 1992, when it was bringing in about $400,000 in annual sales. Last spring, staff built an extension on the west side of the building, expanding it by a quarter. It opened on June 19, its new cooler and shelves brimming with wines, cheese, syrup, crackers and cookies. “Then it just ground to a halt,” says Crowl. “When the wheels come off, the wheels come off hard.”
On normal days, the Ottauquechee River curves gracefully behind the market as a grayish-green riffle at the bottom of a 20-foot bank. During Irene, it became a raging beast that shaved the asphalt from the market’s parking lot, engulfed and swelled the post-and-beam structure, and left behind breathtaking ruin. Everything below the waterline was slathered in mud. Jars and shelves and heavy steel worktables were tangled in a way that suggested a giant had picked up the entire place and slammed it down again.
Yet the market came back from this devastation in less than three months — a testament to the devotion of the people who work (45 at the time of the storm) and shop there.
Looking at the grim photographs taken inside the market after the storm, it’s hard to fathom where its staff even began to rebuild. But Crowl says they were blessed, in a way: The building itself remained sound. “Like most Vermonters, we all analyzed the situation for what it was and kept emotions out of it,” he says. “Whether that was healthy or not.”
Crowl says it was “never a question” whether they would rebuild. “You have to carry on. It was ‘strap your boots on and come up with a plan and stick to it.’”
The first step was to gut the place, chipping away at destruction that Crowl calls “stunning.” A core group of staffers, volunteers and business partners “kept the pedal to the metal,” he says.
But they wondered how to pay for such a steep recovery, especially when so many others had been hit so hard. Fortunately, the market carried insurance through FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program, and a month after the storm, a $100,000 loan from the Vermont Economic Development Authority (VEDA) arrived. The partners remortgaged the building and held a flood sale to unload nonperishable goods that hadn’t been damaged.
Still, a significant gap remained between what they had and what they needed.
Putting their heads together with volunteers and customers, the owners came up with the idea of prepaid shopping cards — Irene Cards — that could be redeemed when the market reopened. The cards offered a 15 percent discount to anyone who purchased more than $1000 in advance.
They sold like proverbial hotcakes. One of the purchasers was Jim Bryan, a part-time Woodstock resident who’d been going to the market for 15 years and seen firsthand how sales of prepaid cards helped New Orleans businesses recover after Hurricane Katrina. He trusted that Woodstock’s market would reopen. “I think a community defines itself by its food, and I think the Farmers’ Market defines Woodstock in a number of ways,” says Bryan. “It’s the place to go for local food. It’s also a nucleus for the community, a place to see friends and neighbors.”
The Irene Cards eventually raised $400,000. “It was helpful to have the cash, and it was helpful for our sanity,” notes Crowl. On November 19, the market reopened, albeit lacking key pieces of equipment and infrastructure.
Even now, with the fish counter up and running, the deli case full, and the shelves piled high, Crowl says that if you look hard, you’ll notice gaps — such as the absence of a dry bakery case. “We’re still not quite there,” he concedes. “Right now, we’re starting to put a budget together. We should have done that months ago. For a long time, though, it was all hands on deck.”
The market is gradually reclaiming its niche, connecting with customers and farmers — some of whose operations remain offline after the flood — and making plans. Morrisville’s Rock Art Brewery will brew a signature beer for the market this summer, and Vermont Farmstead Cheese will use that ale for a special cheese. Executive chef Lisa Battilana and chef Michelle Lee’s prepared foods are as scrumptious as ever; on a recent day, they included rich wine-braised short ribs, a tangy lentil salad studded with feta, and sugar-snap peas in a lemon-herb butter. Locals snapped up the house-baked pear-almond tarts, oversized cookies and pear-blueberry muffins.
The effects of a three-month closure and interruption in farmer and client relationships linger, though. “It’s like 9/11. It’s just not the same. People’s patterns were destroyed when we were closed,” says Crowl, implying that some customers drifted elsewhere. He keeps the damage in perspective: “You know what? We just lost stuff. A lot of people around here lost homes.”
The staff is grateful that holders of Irene Cards didn’t inundate the market with them during the first few months. They’re thankful, too, for VEDA, which Crowl says “made good investments” by being proactive with loans.
Yet it was the hard work and dedication of staff and locals that ultimately brought the market back. “The state was great, but you have to make your own magic,” Crowl says.
Woodstock Farmers’ Market, 979 West Woodstock Road (Route 4), Woodstock, 457-3658.