My Turn: Garlic and arts — Behind the scenes

  • Children participate in a potato sack race at the North Quabbin Garlic and Arts festival in Orange in this undated photo. FILE PHOTO

Published: 5/15/2022 10:04:31 PM
Modified: 5/15/2022 10:02:44 PM

The North Quabbin Garlic and Arts Festival in Orange returns Oct 1 and 2 after a two-year pandemic hiatus. I could go on about the amazing exhibitors and food, music and performance on three stages, and that we only produce two bags of trash for 8,000 people. But this column is about how and why the festival started and endures.

Garlic and Arts was birthed by five artists and farmers with love of livelihood, but no venue to sell our wares in the North Quabbin. It was 1998 and the ‘buy local’ craze was in its infancy. It had not yet hit our towns and likely never would in the way the nearby 5-college area would benefit from the buzz. There was beauty and ample skill to be found in our region and it deserved celebrating. Five friends each tossed in 20 bucks to print up postcards and just do it. The week before the first festival, a hurricane came through. Neighbors showed up with tractors and gravel to prepare for whatever crowds might show up to a muddy field in the middle of the woods. And they did, almost 1,000 strong. In 2000, we moved the event from Seeds of Solidarity Farm down the road to more spacious Forsters Farm which continues to welcome the lively festival masses.

The committee has grown from 5 to 25 over the years, all creative and outside-of-the-box thinkers. We are neighbors and friends who meet year round over meals to plan, then raise the festival village by hand. It’s fully volunteer, people powered, not profit driven. There is no president, paid staff, or corporate sponsorship. Collaboration combined with a just do it attitude are core to the event’s sustained success and the positive vibe that permeates. Attendees feel good when they step onto the foliage ringed festival fields, and usually better when they leave.

We’ve never done a business plan or feasibility study, which we joke would have come out as … a joke. It would not likely have projected that thousands of people would show up on an isolated field in one of the lowest wealth communities in the state. Ingenuity, muscle, and magical thinking have reigned.

One unique organizing element involves each of 100 exhibitors participating in a festival set-up day or making a hearty meal for these exhibitor/workers. We implemented this participation model as a way to keep vendor fees modest while garnering much needed help when the committee was facing burnout some years back. Moving beyond “show up and sell” results in fruitful connections among exhibitors and strengthens the festival as a village, not solely an event. The weekend of, 150 more volunteers park cars, welcome attendees, work recycle/compost stations, or deliver treats from our wood fired oven to other volunteers.

In the early days, we had to call repeatedly to convince the then editor of the Valley Advocate to list the festival in their calendar section. They proclaimed that “no one wanted to go to Orange.” We countered that he was wrong and red-lining our community. And he was, in fact, wrong.

Fast forward to a winter afternoon, January 2022. The committee is gathered around a fire pit, tea mugs in mitten clad hands, happy to not be zooming as we affirm the live return of the 24th annual North Quabbin Garlic and Arts Festival. During the pandemic hiatus, the committee kept up the festival spirit and our connection. We held a virtual festival, offered a free marketplace for artists struggling for sales, and dug into reserves to make small grants as we’d done each year, giving $10,000 to a dozen local causes even without any festival income. Tradition is to start each monthly meeting or pre-festival workday meal with a gently revealing question that builds appreciation of each other. Values have always been at the heart of Garlic and Arts, so sharing some in the cold fresh air provided a ceremonial restart moment. Connection, healing from isolation, relearning, staying joyful, support for artist/farmer livelihoods were voiced among many reasons to bring the festival back.

After a few more winter meetings around a fire, on an April Sunday we gathered at the festival site to clear two years of fallen branches, and sweep the dust and debris from the stage we’d built together of local lumber. We are excited to bring back this celebration, one long infused with cooperation, self-determination, and a belief that together we can and must envision and shape the communities in which we want to live.

Deb Habib lives in Orange. The festival committee members are among her favorite people ever. To sign up to volunteer at the festival and learn more, visit


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