Year-round farm stands retain their niche in customers' affections

The sky hung heavy with rain clouds, but the gloom overhead failed to discourage the Sunday-afternoon crowd streaming into Wilson Farms to sample the fruits of the harvest.

On this brisk fall day visitors to the venerable roadside stand found a windfall of autumn's bounty. Sweater-clad children clamored for fresh caramel apples, while their parents gathered jugs of cider and bags of Cortlands. Workers, surrounded by tables piled high with pumpkins and blue Hubbard squash, handed cups of steaming chicken soup to hungry customers. Yellow and white mums decorated the entrance to an adjoining greenhouse; wheelbarrows full of logs promised glowing fires in wood stoves and fireplaces.

Wilson Farms will celebrate its 100th anniversary next year. It is one of a small, hardy breed of New England farm stands that stay open year-round. Some produce stands extend their season to cater to the holiday trade, but most close during the lean months of January, February, and March.

''The supermarkets compete very efficiently for the consumer dollar,'' says John Lee, owner of Lawson Farms in Lincoln, Mass., which is closed during the first three months of the year. ''They have better heating systems and lower overhead.''

Only the most stalwart farm stands find ways to bridge the gap from Christmas to Easter. Many sell produce harvested during the regular growing season and stored in temperature-controlled conditions until needed. Of the estimated 700 roadside stands in Massachusetts, fewer than a hundred are open year-round, says Craig Richov, marketing specialist in the state Department of Agriculture.

Roadside markets flourish more easily in states with a year-round growing season, such as California, Florida, and Texas. Nationally, ''the popularity of roadside stands has increased somewhat, but there is a limit. Supermarkets have realized that the produce area can attract customers, and they have put a lot of effort into their produce sections. Meat used to be the big drawing card - now it's produce,'' says Ulrich Toensmeyer, professor of agricultural marketing at the University of Delaware. Still, he continues, ''Roadside stands are not going to go away. They've established their niche.''

Despite competition with supermarkets, the number of roadside stands in Massachusetts is holding steady, according to Mr. Richov. Younger growers, in particular, see roadside marketing as a profitable alternative to selling wholesale, since they can eliminate middleman costs.

''I don't go (to a roadside stand) for regular vegetable shopping,'' says one Boston professional. ''I go there for special occasions when I want really fresh , good vegetables. It's usually linked with a day outing.''

''I think most of us like to associate with our rural roots,'' says a suburban mother, who enjoys chatting with the farm-stand owners. ''There's also something nice about buying local produce.''

During bleak winter days, customers at Wilson Farms can buy plants for New Year's and flowers for Valentine's Day from the greenhouse and shop for produce and poultry in a spacious indoor market. The year-round bounty is supplied by the original 32-acre Wilson Farm in Lexington, a 300-acre farm in New Hampshire, and nine greenhouses that grow flowers and herbs.

As in many family operations, pride runs high.

''The fourth generation is here - the kids are already in (the business) and ready to take over,'' says co-owner Alan Wilson, who has a son and daughter in college. He runs the business with his cousin Donald Wilson.

DeVincent Farms Stand in Waltham, Mass., another well-established market, relies on its reputation for quality during the winter months. It successfully competes with a nearby supermarket.

''We have a regular clientele that stays with us summer and winter,'' says Steve Deprofio, manager of DeVincent's. During the regular growing season, the produce is supplied by four local DeVincent-run farms; during midwinter the stand sells carefully selected fruit and vegetables from the New England Produce Center in Chelsea, Mass.

Spence Farms in Woburn, Mass., is about to enter its busiest season as one of the largest suppliers of Christmas trees and hand-woven wreaths on the East Coast. In addition to its two local produce farms, the business acquired about 2 ,000 acres in Canada 25 years ago, which are now yielding prizewinning Christmas trees.

Bob Spence, who has been in the business 49 years, is pleased it will stay in the family and the farm won't be sold for housing development. ''It will be handed down to my nephews when we are through,'' he says, adding, ''There will always be a farm.''

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