Valley Bounty: Building community, year-round: Holyoke Farmers Market is a source of positivity and local fare

Alexis Diaz DeJesus manages the Holyoke Farmers Market and  mentors Holyoke youth.

Alexis Diaz DeJesus manages the Holyoke Farmers Market and mentors Holyoke youth. CONTRIBUTED photo

The War Memorial Building at 310 Appleton St. houses the Holyoke Winter Farmers Market every other Saturday through March from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

The War Memorial Building at 310 Appleton St. houses the Holyoke Winter Farmers Market every other Saturday through March from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. CONTRIBUTED

D & R Farms is the main farm vendor at the Holyoke Winter Farmers Market, bringing produce along with handmade preserves and baked goods.

D & R Farms is the main farm vendor at the Holyoke Winter Farmers Market, bringing produce along with handmade preserves and baked goods. CONTRIBUTED

Livingstone Mycology sells fresh mushrooms and medicinal products at the Holyoke Witner Farmers Market.

Livingstone Mycology sells fresh mushrooms and medicinal products at the Holyoke Witner Farmers Market. CONTRIBUTED

Liv Nu Accessories is one of the local craft vendors selling at the Holyoke Winter Farmers Market.

Liv Nu Accessories is one of the local craft vendors selling at the Holyoke Winter Farmers Market. CONTRIBUTED

By JACOB NELSON

For the Gazette

Published: 03-01-2024 11:50 AM

Modified: 03-06-2024 12:18 PM


‘When I was a kid in Puerto Rico, I always liked going to the roadside markets and farm stands,” says Alexis Diaz DeJesus. “People had their fruit and vegetables all displayed, and you could negotiate prices or even trade for things. Then there were pulgueros, where you could find food but also things like shoes and clothes. They were all over the island.”

Diaz DeJesus grew up in Puerto Rico but moved to Massachusetts with his family when he was 3, traveling back and forth from the island for a while before settling in Holyoke. Now 24 years old, he is in his second year of AmeriCorps service supporting and mentoring high school students, first at his alma mater of LightHouse Holyoke, a competency-based, nontraditional private school with public partnerships, and now Holyoke High School.

In 2022, he also took over as manager of the Holyoke Farmers Market, drawn by its potential to open doors for entrepreneurs like him. With the pulgueros of Puerto Rico as a reference point, Diaz DeJesus hopes to expand the market, lifting up local businesses and creating a space where everyone feels welcome to use the resources it offers.

For Diaz DeJesus, organizing an expanding market has coincided with a period of personal growth as well. Entering his mid-20s, he continues looking up to his elders while also becoming a role model himself. He will share some of that personal journey intertwined with the market as a performer in Field Notes, a live storytelling show at the Academy of Music Theatre next Sunday.

The Holyoke Farmers Market runs year-round, overseen by the Greater Holyoke Chamber. The winter market happens December through March, every other Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. in the Holyoke War Memorial Building at 310 Appleton St. This month, market dates are next, Saturday, March 9, and March 23. Details on this summer’s markets are still to come, but they will likely be weekly with an expanded lineup of vendors.

“The winter market vibe is pretty chill,” says Diaz DeJesus. “The lighting isn’t great, but the people definitely are great.”

Tables are covered in vendors’ wares, from groceries to sweet treats, crafts and clothing. “D &R Farms in Hampden is our main farm vendor,” he says. “Livingstone Mycology comes once a month — they sell mushrooms and tinctures made from mushrooms. Tempest Temptations makes cheesecake. And then there’s Mama V’s Munchies, who makes different kinds of empanadas — chicken, beef, seafood and vegan.”

Produce at the market can be bought with SNAP — formerly known as food stamps — and HIP (Healthy Incentive Program). HIP is a state program that offers SNAP households an extra $40 to $80 per month to spend on locally grown fruits and vegetables. The Holyoke Farmers Market is one of the few places in town where HIP benefits can be used, and Diaz DeJesus works closely with the Holyoke coordinator for Mass in Motion and other local groups to help people understand and feel comfortable using HIP there.

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“We’ll have live music at both markets in March,” Diaz DeJesus adds. “On the 9th, Quinn Miller will perform, and March 23rd will be Bermudas Triangle. On the 23rd we’ll also have our second annual Boss Woman Pop Up Shop organized by Tempest Temptations, where local entrepreneurial women will sell what they make and showcase their business.”

The latter is one example of the kinds of opportunities that Diaz DeJesus likes to create for others. Like the grandfathers he looked up to in Puerto Rico — one a farmer and one a carpenter — he is also a grower and a builder. But rather than raising pigs or putting up houses, he connects people.

“I’ve always been inspired by food, my family, my culture and my heritage,” he says. “I know I want to create things, and to bring people together through food. I love the conversations and community that come from that.”

While his own next steps are not certain, Diaz DeJesus is clearly motivated to pave an easier road for those coming up behind him, especially for his community of Caribbean transplants.

As he shares stories from his life, he offers gratitude for the role models who shared their wisdom and perspective with him. That includes family members, teachers, and now colleagues in the professional world.

Next weekend, Diaz DeJesus will tell a story about this transformation at the live storytelling show Field Notes. Hosted by CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture), Field Notes celebrates the people working hard to sustain our local food system in western Massachusetts — especially people who are often erased from the public narrative because of their jobs, cultural backgrounds, or the languages they speak.

The show will be held on Sunday, March 10, 2 to 4 p.m. at the Academy of Music Theatre in Northampton. Sliding scale tickets starting at $10 are on sale now at tinyurl.com/CISAFN2024.

“My story is about inspiring people to chase their dreams,” Diaz DeJesus says. “There’s never going to be a perfect time to get started. Today is when to start chasing them.”

With that perspective, every trip to the farmers market takes on a new light. After all, most of the farmers and vendors there are chasing some dream, and everyone who stops by their table writes a line in their story.

“Every Saturday I get to see people interact in such positive ways,” says Diaz DeJesus. “Musicians are playing. People are shopping, talking about healthy eating and sharing recipes with each other. People from all different backgrounds and cultures. The beauty of humanity coming together is really something to see. And I can’t wait to see this market continue to grow.”

To all those who have never visited the Holyoke Farmers Market, or any farmers market, Diaz DeJesus has a suggestion: “Don’t be afraid to try something new. If you’re looking for a community of positive people, come on by.”

Jacob Nelson is communications coordinator for CISA. To find local food and farms near you, or to learn more about Field Notes, visit buyl ocalfood.org.