photo courtesy of North Quabbin Garlic and Arts Festival
For Deb Habib, co-founder of the Garlic and Arts Festival, the collaborative space the festival offers for folks of the North Quabbin region is at least as important as is showcasing the crafts, farmed foods and organizations that come from those parts.
“Being on the edge of any urban area, straddling two counties, the North Quabbin is often marginalized,” Habib tells me. “It’s easy to get defensive. People don’t always see the beauty. But we create magnificent things, and those who come to the festival can really feel that.”
The Garlic and Arts Festival takes place in Orange this weekend for the fifteenth year in a row. While attendance has grown from 1,000 a day when it first began to 10,000 per weekend over the past few years, regularly drawing folks not just from the Valley but also the eastern part of the state, it is apparent that the Garlic and Arts Festival is run by, and for, the residents of the North Quabbin region.
“There is a real cross-section of people from the area who have been very supportive,” continues Habib. “The festival is recognized as an important effort to help revitalize the region, and as something the community can count on.”
A few years ago, Habib tells me, Kristin Marquis and Hal Gillam were speaking together in the Renewable Energy area at the Festival. From that discussion, they started the Athol-based business Peguoig Energy, to support the installation of solar farms. The establishment of their local business then allowed George Hunt, of Orange’s Hunt Farm, to use a portion of his land along Route 202 for solar farming.
“[Hunt] had refused to sell out to a big-box store,” Habib says. But once there was an opportunity to collaborate with a local business, she continues, he was able to move forward with his previously dormant solar farming plan.
Renewable energy, though, is one of many aspects at Garlic and Arts that often remains hidden at first glance.
Upon arriving at the festival grounds, as I’ve done a few times over the years, what is most apparent is the immense number of people having a good time. Intriguing vendors in breezy tents line the boundaries of the grassy field, offering everything from glass jewelry to soy candles to eco-friendly pottery. At the far end of the field, a south-facing solar-powered stage hosts a full lineup of musicians, many of them performing for a jubilant, dancing crowd. Back toward the other side of the festival, where the field inclines toward the dirt road and the woods beyond, local farmers and restaurateurs serve up everything from apple cider to ice cream, vegan pad Thai with tofu, grass-fed beef, and of course, garlic. Lots and lots of garlic. Garlic fudge. Garlic hot dogs. Garlic baked beans. Garlic everything.
This is, after all, “the festival that stinks.” But a little scent never smelled so good.
For me, the signature Garlic and Arts item has always been the garlic chocolate chip cookie. On first bite, the placement of garlic in a cookie dough texture seems odd. However, as chewing commences, the more familiar if bittersweet taste of the chocolate chips takes firm hold. Finally, though, it is the underlying but ultimately enduring sensation of the garlic that returns, lingering on.
My experiences as an attendee at the Festival have been similar, as first impressions have given way to memories, experiences, and insight that linger with me.
“The Festival has always had a strong sense of values,” Habib explains, noting its family-friendly atmosphere and environmental emphasis: recycling and composting make it virtually trash-free.
“Solar helps power the stages, composting toilet designs are in progress, and drinking water is free, as it should be,” reads the Q and A printout of festival material. It all amounts to a most impressive grand total of three trash bags for about 10,000 folks.
In harmony with the emphasis on ecological stability is the value of economic stability. Habib tells me that each year’s festival is financed with money made the year before. “The Festival costs about $35,000 to put on each year, made from exhibitor fees and admissions,” she explains. “Anything over is saved … to make sure the festival goes on year after year.”
“There is no paid staff, no CEO,” the Q and A continues. “Committee members volunteer thousands of hours of time, meeting every month year round … Everyone has a role to make it whole.”
Habib regularly refers to the festival as a neighborhood block party, noting that it is “community-based, not just community-placed.” In keeping with that philosophy, vendors are expected to contribute to the creation of the festival, whether by bringing food for a work crew, helping to clean up after the event, or providing another form of support. Over the years, Habib says, this practice has created a greater sense of ownership and engagement for all involved.
Each year, in exchange for a festival donation of $250 or so, a different organization volunteers to help with parking, a logistical challenge that has grown considerably since the event’s inception. A few years ago, a nearby chapter of the Rolling Thunder motorcycle gang directed traffic. Then folks from the Prison Book Project took their turn. Another year, parents of students from the Mahar Regional School volunteered their time to help raise money for the school’s annual field trip. This year, Habib says, parking duties will be handled by members of Valley Free Radio.
“The North Quabbin Garlic and Arts Festival is a celebration of the artistic, agricultural and cultural bounty of the region,” its website (www.garlicandarts.org) reads. “The purpose of the festival is to unite North Quabbin people whose livelihoods are connected to the land and the arts, and to invite both local residents and those who do not live in the region to experience the richness of an area that is often overlooked.”
This year, a local pilot will be taking off from nearby Orange Airport to drop 1,500 “Garlic and Arts Bucks,” immediately redeemable at the festival, from the sky. They read “In community we trust” on one side, and include this calculation on the other: “For every $10 spent at a locally owned business (not a big box store), at least $7.30 remains and re-circulates in the local economy.” Which means that “for every 10 dollars spent by [the 10,000] attendees at the North Quabbin Garlic and Arts Festival, over $70,000 supports local residents and our regional economy! Plus thousands of connections made that grow and grow.”
“We can’t wait for others to drop legislation from the sky,” say Habib.
Perhaps the best way to describe the Garlic and Arts Festival is to say that while it is so many things, it is more than all those things. It is political, but it is more than just political. It is a seasonal harvest feast, but it is more than that, too. It is also more than just a craft fair. It is a celebration of a way of life, or a type of inspiration, but it is more than that. And though there is such an intentional focus on community, it is more than the North Quabbin region as well.
“The festival is a glimpse of the world I want to live in, all the time,” Habib says. With a legacy 15 years old and as strong as ever, it is apparent that there are many, both in the North Quabbin community and beyond, who share her vision.•