hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News & Issues April 2021


A hub for food and community

Columbia County market blends co-op, consignment models



When several women banded together to reopen the long-shuttered Random Harvest Market in 2018, they decided they didn’t want a traditional retail model. Instead, they set out to create a consignment-based clearinghouse to allow local food producers to reach a large base of customers. Scott Langley photo


Contributing writer


On a warm Sunday in March, the first blush of spring is in the air, with bright sunshine melting the last patches of snow along Route 23 -- and a nearly full parking lot at Random Harvest Market.
Customers sit at wooden tables on the market’s wrap-around porch, dining on salads and sandwiches from the deli or sipping Random Harvest’s signature hot chocolate.

Inside, the shelves are loaded with inventory from more than 100 regional vendors. The offerings range from locally made cough syrups from The Healing Plant in Copake to satchels of dried lavender from Vine Gate Lavender Floral Farm in Hillsdale, digestive elixirs from the Albany-based Underground Alchemy, and books by area authors, including “Farming While Black” by Leah Penniman of Soul Fire Farm in Petersburgh.

On the other side of the market are refrigerated shelves laden with fruits and vegetables from around the region: apples from Mead Orchards in Tivoli, bunches of herbs from Deep Roots in Copake, emerald heads of cabbage and red potatoes from Hepworth Farms in Ulster County, and carrots from Winter Moon Roots in Hadley, Mass.

Hillary Hawk, the market’s co-owner and visionary, tends to the produce with a spritz bottle while answering customers’ questions and fielding online orders from her nearby laptop.
When Hawk, who’s originally from southern California, moved to Hillsdale a decade ago, the original owners of Random Harvest had just shuttered the business. The couple that ran the market, Christine and Paul Hanafin, lived in the building’s upstairs quarters and also tilled the fields behind the store. They operated the market successfully as certified organic farmers for nearly 30 years before retiring.

Hawk passed the empty building often in her travels.
“I kept thinking, ‘Someone should do something with that place,’” she recalled. “Years went by, and I realized that someone is me.”

The realization came after she met Robin Mullaney through a mutual friend, and they discovered they shared the same values and vision for the space. After a three-year renovation, they revived the market, keeping its original name as a nod to the Hanafins and the building’s history.
Just before the market reopened in November 2018, Kogetsu Walker joined Hawk and Mullaney as a third owner.


Linking producers, consumers
The three women decided they didn’t want a traditional retail model. Instead, inspired by the Argus Farm Stop in Ann Arbor, Mich., which describes itself as “a year-round, every day farmers market,” they set out to create a consignment-based clearinghouse that would allow local food producers to reach a large base of customers.

Vendors set their own prices for their wares, create their own display signs, and keep 75 percent of the retail revenue – substantially more than they’d earn by selling wholesale.

“It’s a very relational model,” Hawk explained. “The idea is to build relationships with vendors. I love the relational economy we’ve built. We get to know vendors, they get to know our customers, and we get to watch their babies grow over the years – that’s what it’s all about.”
Mullaney, who also serves as market manager, said the link between the market and its suppliers goes far beyond the standard retail arrangement.

“It feels very collaborative, because we’re working together for our mutual success,” she explained.

There’s another perk for vendors: free coffee when they stop in to replenish inventory.
Ron Reinken, owner of Vine Gate Lavender Floral Farm just a few miles east, says the rewards of being a part of the Random Harvest community are many.

“I’ve been selling fresh and dried lavender here for three years after stopping in and asking if I could participate,” he recalled. “It went so well, I ended up expanding my product line to include lavender wraps and pillows, sugar scrubs and felted dryer balls.”

Reinken also shops at Random Harvest Market regularly.
“They’ve created a wonderful, welcoming culture,” he said.

Another component of Random Harvest’s mission is operating the business as a worker-owned co-operative.

“Most people are familiar with the customer-owned model” of food co-ops, Hawk explained. “But we offer employees a path toward ownership if they so choose. It offers employees democratic ownership and profit-sharing.”

In addition to the three current owners, the market now has eight employees.

Changing with the seasons
Drawing on the abundance of small farms in the Hudson Valley and the Berkshires, Random Harvest makes it a point to have fruits and vegetables that reflect seasonal eating.
“We don’t do it in a rigid way, because otherwise we’d just be selling root vegetables in the winter,” Hawk said. “We do have things like lemons from outside vendors. But I’m still considering bananas and avocados.”

And despite numerous requests for tomatoes in the off-season, Hawk said she is reluctant to acquiesce, citing both the quality and carbon footprint of the tomatoes that would be available in the dead of winter.

“And then I get customers who’ll say, ‘Because of you, I’ve gotten used to eating in season, and now I really look forward to tomato season,’” she added.
Walker, who is known as Chef Ko, manages the kitchen and decides what’s on the ever-changing menu.

“It’s in a constant state of shifting to reflect the seasons,” she explained. “I try to stick with seasonal foods as much as possible and am getting really excited about changing from root vegetables to asparagus and garlic scapes.”

Some of the evergreen items on Walker’s menu are sandwiches, mini-meatloaves, soups and a “Daily Comfort,” usually consisting of a curry or dahl.

Walker has an interest in traditional Ayurvedic medicine and has studied at the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health in the Berkshires,

“My favorite thing to make are the curries,” she said. “That’s where most of my training comes from. I cook and eat Ayurvedic foods at home and have discovered the customers like it as well.”
Walker also keeps in mind the convenience factor at the deli case.

“I think about what people like if they just don’t want to cook,” she explained. “A mini-meatloaf and a couple of sides, and they’ve got a meal.”

By summer, Random Harvest hopes to be selling smoothies and espresso-based drinks, in a nod to Hawk’s past life as a barista.


Community through food
Renovation of the building took three years.
“It’s an older building that needed a lot of work,” Hawk said.
One of the priorities was transforming the second floor from living quarters to a community space for yoga classes, community dinners, and various workshops. All of those events are on hold because of Covid-19, but the owners want to resume them as soon as it’s safe. For now, the bright, sunny space with cathedral ceilings and wood-plank floors quietly awaits a return to activity.

“I ran a coffeehouse in southern California, and I’ve always been passionate about having a gathering space for community events and good food,” Hawk said.

Just off the community room is a commercial kitchen, available for preparing dinners and also as a workspace for local food purveyors to create products.

“I think many people in the community are very happy the market is open again,” Reinken said. “The building was originally built as a general store, and many have fond childhood memories of shopping there.”

The market’s location, halfway between the Taconic State Parkway and the Massachusetts state line, allows it to serve customers from around Columbia County and the Berkshires as well as hungry travelers who’ve just left the highway. Although the area has for decades been a magnet for part-time and weekend residents from metropolitan New York City, the pandemic has accelerated that trend, Hawk said.

“The Covid exodus has shifted things dramatically, and we have a lot more full-time residents,” she said.

Although that trend may help the market’s bottom line, Random Harvest also is working to help people who are struggling because of the economic damage wrought by Covid-19.

The Random Harvest Food Access Fund, supported by community donations, allows people with low incomes to purchase food from the market. Qualifying buyers receive bi-weekly coupon codes that allow them to make online purchases from the market.

“This gives them agency over the food they eat,” Hawk said. “And that’s a really important element.”

The market also raises funds, via customer donations at the register, for Multicultural Bridge, a food distribution effort that serves nearly 100 families in the Berkshires. In addition to raising money for the group, Hawk also helps it to make bulk purchases of food.

“I love our mission,” Hawk said. “It’s so much work, and we’re still trying to get to that break-even point, … but it’s a huge labor of love for us.”


Random Harvest Market Cafe and Community Space is open 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. Visit www.randomharvestmarket.com for more information or to place an online order.