Paul Westheimer stood before a small pile of carrots at Agudat Achim’s 34th annual Carrot Festival on Sunday afternoon.
A handful of two-pound bags were all that was left as the day progressed.
“We started with about 200 bags,” he said.
Around him were quickly diminishing mounds of turnips, cabbage, pumpkins and other vegetables. Outside the confines of his tent were similar tents of baked goods, scores of vendors, a few pet llamas and a stunningly accurate Beatles cover band.
The synagogue parking lot and the surrounding neighborhood streets were jammed with hundreds of cars. Crowds of locals snatched up the produce and the cakes and danced to the classic rock, but it didn’t used to be so large.
Nearly three and a half decades ago, Paul Westheimer was key in the festival’s conception. He owned Schoharie Valley Farms in those days, which produced large quantities of carrots.
“The [synagogue] parking lot needed to be paved,” he said, recounting how he was walking with another member, discussing how to raise money for the project.
“He said, ‘how about a carrot festival’ ” Westheimer said. “I thought he was pulling my leg.”
The first event was just a small produce and bake sale. Many years later, Paul and his wife, Rose, looked out over the mass of attractions that today makes up the congregation’s single largest fundraiser.
“It’s very satisfying,” he said. “It was small then. There are so many facets of it now.”
Months of planning
Sunday’s event was planned by a committee headed up by seven-year Carrot Festival veteran Hillary Fink.
“We’ve been working on it since January,” she said, adding that it’s a lot to pull together.
Inside the synagogue were dozens of local and out-of-state vendors selling everything from gold chains to beeswax lotion.
Outside, “Imagining Lennon and McCartney” sang a compelling rendition of “Yesterday” as adults ate fragrant carrot-based fare and children led patient llamas.
“My kids were just in awe,” said Heather Rockwood, “I don’t think they’ve ever touched a llama before.”
Her daughters Shayna, 5, and Mya, 7, ran back from their llama session.
“I learned it spits and kicks,” said Mya, who did not learn this first hand. “Can we play in the bounce house?”
It was the third year Rockwood attended the festival. She said she mostly does it for her kids, but “I think my husband comes for the carrot cake.”
Of course there is entertainment, but food is really the point.
While Westheimer sold a few hundred pounds of fresh carrots, many more were consumed in various other forms.
Harvey Sharfstein enjoyed a carrot sweet potato tzimmes at a picnic table in the shade, describing the dish as lightly sweet because of the caramelized raisins.
Mona Golub sipped from a cup of carrot soup.
“I’d say it’s on the sweet side of savory,” she said, “Delicious and very fragrant.”
But Sunday, carrot cake was king.
Volunteers produced 600 rich raisin and coconut-filled carrot cakes in different varieties, selling them hand over fist for hours.
“People travel for these things,” Fink said. “They were lined up in the pouring rain at 10 a.m. this morning just to buy them.”
The stacks of cakes shrank as the day passed.
In a few weeks, Fink will start planning next year’s Carrot Festival.