left: Pierluigi Mazzella, whose micro-bakery, Fatto a Mano, is introducing Westport to traditional Italian bread and pastry. middle: On Thursdays, the community-centric market is a draw for visitors shopping for produce and provisions.
Photographs: Garvin Burke
At 11:00 a.m. on a recent Thursday morning, a parking valet could have made a killing at the lot outside the Westport Farmers’ Market on Imperial Avenue. Inside a perimeter of bare-boned, DIY tents, a scrappy colony of 30-plus farmers and vendors universally dedicated to the virtuous production of leafy greens and root vegetables, cheeses, meats, fish and bread—and honey, eggs, and flowers, too—had sprouted. And locavores, seduced by the benefits of organic sustenance, were gathering.
After opening for business in 2006 in the parking lot of the Westport Country Playhouse under the nurturing gaze of actor Paul Newman and chef Michel Nischan, WFM, as it’s known, drifted into a dark period of in-fighting and financial malfeasance before crossing paths, 13 years ago, with seasonal-food zealot Lori Cochran-Dougall. After 17 years in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where she had chaired the board of the Jackson Hole Farmers Market, Cochran-Dougall had transplanted herself and her family to Westport. But commuting to New York as a corporate marketing consultant proved alienating for the Roanoke, Virginia, native who grew up in a family that canned its own apple sauce and ground its own peanut butter—and made weekly pilgrimages to one of the country’s longest continually operating farmers’ markets, where neighbors not only enjoyed the peaches and green beans they grew but also each others’ company.
“In a supermarket, there’s no personal touch—everything is cold, including the metal cart,” says Cochran-Dougall, who recalls tearing into a homemade baguette and a block of cheese with her brother while sliding around in the backseat of the car after a trip to the market. “There were no Little Debbies in our house.”
Craving the connection of bona-fide community, and encouraged by an intuitive husband, she put her C-suite ambitions on pause and volunteered her dazzling knack for organization and strategy. On the spot, she was promoted to become a $10-per-hour staffer, and within a few months, was hired as executive director. With a 30-page PowerPoint deck and lots of plastic, she revived the operation just as a soft and steady summer rain puts the bounce back into a wilted tomato plant.
She inaugurated the winter season at Gilbertie’s organic greenhouse; fortified relationships with nonprofits (Bridgeport Rescue Mission, Gillespie Center, Homes for the Brave); lured restaurants like Alma and Boxcar Cantina into preparing food in real time using local onions, garlic, and herbs; partnered with nearby schools in robust educational programming, and indoctrinated a rigorous system for vetting and nurturing her sellers. Ultimately, Cochran-Dougall, also a WFM board member, had incubated a nonprofit engine of agri-commerce recognized by the American Farmland Trust.
At the heart of the endeavor is her belief that one should know where their food grows and also her conviction that the livelihood of a community depends on the viability of its farmer economy.
“I have been graced to earn their respect,” she says, with reverence for the sacrifice of farmers whose afternoon appearance at an outdoor market is but a small fraction of the hours they spend planting crops and caring for livestock. “They educate me, which empowers me, and gives me a voice to represent them.”
On her weekly walkabout, Cochran-Dougall patrols the outdoor mall with the intensity of a basketball coach pacing the sideline during March Madness. She champions new members such as Pierluigi Mazzella, whose micro-bakery, Fatto a Mano, is introducing Westport to traditional Italian bread and pastry one focaccia at a time. She reminds her cheery Staples High School interns where the trash bags are kept, catches up with chocolatier Fritz Knipschildt, an Oprah fave who’s fancying some rhubarb’s he’s spied and greets ladies who come for lunch from New Haven every week. She also instructs, with firm kindness, the purveyors of pressed juices to post their ingredients and sources.
Yet the lush and earthy goodness at the center of the enterprise—bouquets of jumbo basil wrapped in craft paper by Two Guys From Woodbridge; Muddy Feet Flower Farm’s perky poppies available for $3 a stem; “beetoa” salad (beets, quinoa, pistachios, capers, cow-feta) from the food-punning proprietors of Herbaceous Catering; Lavender Hills Farm’s smoked-paprika-and-garlic chevre—never escapes her.
Admiring the bunch of dainty, Instagram-ready carrots she just purchased from Fort Hill Farm, a WFM mainstay, Cochran-Dougall says, “These, for instance, won’t make it past tomorrow at my house.”
Westport Farmers Market: 3 Seller’s Facts
- Farmer’s plants must must be grown on the seller’s property or derived from animals raised on the seller’s/farmer’s property, which must be located within a 140-mile radius of Westport.
- Prepared food must be made from scratch by the seller and feature at least one locally grown ingredient and be labeled accordingly.
- Meat products must be local and/or organic, derived from humanely slaughtered animals, free of antibiotics, hormones and GMOs, and clearly labeled.
For $40, buyers of this chic and roomy tote get a bag to swagger with.
As official Friends of the Market, they:
• Offset the market fees vendors pay.
• Enable farmers and artisans to keep more of their Thursday take.
• Can easily accommodate all the provisions needed for a dinner party.