NISKAYUNA — The first Carrot Festival at Congregation Agudat Achim was a small fundraiser to pave the Niskayuna synagogue’s parking lot.
It succeeded. But on Sunday, that parking lot was full. Cars filled every vacant square foot of grass, as well as the shoulders of nearby streets, for the 36th year of the popular local tradition.
Hillary Fink, who has chaired the festival for the past nine years, said she expected 4,000 visitors by the end of the day, and as much as $20,000 raised for educational programs at the synagogue.
“People come no matter what their faith is, and no matter what their age is,” she said. “It brings so many people from the community together.”
There’s truly a job for everyone who wants to help out with the festival. Rachel Smith, 11, landed the coveted role of festival mascot. Clad in a full-length carrot costume complete with green gloves poking from the arm slits, she said the key to winning the honor was stopping by the night before to help set up.
Besides, she has prior experience. “I was the carrot last year, which helps,” she said.
It’s a good thing the carrot knows what she’s doing, because Fink has lots of moving parts to oversee. She walks rows of vendor tents outside and inside, greets the petting zoo operators, and checks up on the representatives from local service organizations.
She stops in the kitchen to make sure production is going smoothly. The cooks are hard at work on entrees like apple kugel, which is a new offering this year. The first batch disappeared in just 15 minutes.
More than 1,500 pieces of signature carrot cake have been baked and packaged in advance. By the end of the day, the kitchen will have used up 500 pounds of carrots, not just for cake but other carrot-based dishes as well.
“We made 30 sheet cakes,” said Anita Merims, who has worked in the Carrot Festival kitchen for years.
“We made 25 last year and we did sell out,” she added.
Anyone in attendance will insist the carrot cake is the best in the world. But the festival’s true heart is the produce tent, where Carrot Festival founders Paul and Rose Westheimer greet customers and sell carrots unassumingly, as if they aren’t local royalty.
The Westheimers, now in their 80s, founded the festival using produce from the carrot barn on their farm in Schoharie.
“The first year we just had the produce,” Rose Westheimer said. “After the carrot festival, we had a square dance.”
They’ve since sold the farm to the Ball family, who have taken on the job of providing the produce for the event.
Paul Westheimer said the current owners are invested in the success of the festival.
“Richard Ball’s son delivered the vegetables, and his daughter helped unload the truck,” he said. “There were three generations involved.”
The 36th festival is the last for the couple, who will turn over its operations to Fink and the committee members. They’re not worried about how it will turn out next year.
“On the day of the festival we have over 100 volunteers,” Rose said proudly.
They’ll be back to enjoy the festivities next fall, of course.
“It would be hard to keep us away,” Paul said.
Fink suggested the committee should send a limousine to pick them up. It doesn’t seem out of the question, considering the impact the two have had on the community.
Jeffrey Handelman was 13 years old at the first Carrot Festival, one of about 100 attendees. On Sunday, he was there with his wife and two children, now 14 and 16.
“My kids are volunteering and spending all my money,” he said with a laugh.
He missed a few festivals during his college years and a few when he lived in New York City, but Handelman said he’s been to about 27 iterations of the community event. He and his wife, who also grew up in Niskayuna, haven’t missed a single one since they were married 19 years ago.
Handelman said events like the Carrot Festival and Niska-Day, held earlier in the year, brought his family back to the area.
“My wife and I moved to Clifton Park for seven years,” he said. “We just didn’t feel the same sense of community.”
He plans to mark his calendar for Agudat Achim’s autumn celebration for years to come.
“You see infants and people in their 90s,” he said. “It’s really become Niskayuna’s fall festival.”