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Novak lauded as local hero for work with farmers' markets

Date: 7/6/2010

July 5, 2010

By Chris Maza

Reminder Assistant Editor

SPRINGFIELD -- Nestled in the corner of Forest Park in front of Cyr Arena is a community all unto itself -- the farmers' market.

In the middle of it all, taking it all in sits the person responsible for it all -- Belle Rita Novak.

Donning a bright yellow shirt so she might be easily found, she banters with those who sit down to chat with her. Others don't stop, but are sure to say, "Hi, Belle Rita!" as they pass by with their purchases.

Novak, a Forest Park resident, was selected by the Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA) to receive its Local Hero Award for 2010.

According to the CISA Web site, the Local Hero Award is "given to individuals and businesses that are committed to promoting and strengthening local agriculture and have demonstrated long-term vision, social responsibility, and/or environ-mental ethic in their work."

"It's nice to be acknowledged," Novak said. "It's nice to be recognized for the work that you do."

In 1998, Novak first opened the farmers' market with the help of friends and a total of five vendors. Twelve years later, her endeavor is stronger than ever with somewhere in the vicinity of 25 vendors from local farms calling Forest Park home for five and a half hours every Tuesday.

Novak said that it's important to remember and celebrate what makes Western Massachusetts such a unique area such as its agricultural offerings, something the neighborhood farmers' market does.

"I love Western Mass. and I think part of what makes the quality of life such as it is here is that we have so much open space and we have to do what we can to preserve it," Novak said.

The farmers' market started out as part of a casual conversation about how nice it would be to get fresh local produce in the Forest Park neighborhood. It became a reality and it didn't take long for Novak to realize the market was not just an amenity for the community, but a necessity for some.

"In the community of Forest Park we had a survey done several years ago and they were able to determine that a very significant percentage of our residents don't own their own vehicle," Novak said. "I can get in my car and drive to Feeding Hills or I can go up to Sunderland or I can go to Greenfield. Those without their own vehicle don't have the same freedom. When you make something like this so accessible, it really works."

By offering an accessible source of locally raised produce and other goods, Novak has created a cost-effective path towards healthier eating. On top of travel savings, she explained, local food keeps longer, which creates less waste and means less trips to the grocery store, an expense that can especially add up for low-to-moderate income families.

"Yes, we have the most expensive homes in our neighborhood, but we have a lot of people who are living modestly," Novak said. "Making something like this available is really terrific. It benefits them."

When Novak started her farmers' market, there were a total of 98 in the state of Massachusetts. That number has more than doubled since then with more than 200 markets presently in existence.

While Novak wants locally grown products available to everyone, she cautions that there could be a saturation point for markets and too many could have a negative affect on the farmers who provide the goods.

"I think it depends on what the need is. If some farmers that are going to farmers' markets aren't doing well this year in comparison to some other years, then maybe that means that too much business has been siphoned off from other markets," Novak said.

"I think that that's something when people are considering opening a new market that they really need to do some research. They need to talk to some people. They need to talk to some farmers at established markets and find out how their sales are in comparison to other years."

After all, according to Novak, the market is something that should benefit the farmers as well as the neighborhood.

"It's a community that goes both ways," Novak said. "We really want those farmers to do well because we don't want them to give up farming. We want them to continue to do the hard work so we can benefit."