Showcase Diversity and Determination of Growing Local Food System
By Melissa White Pillsbury
Farmers’ markets tend to conjure images of customers strolling aisles of outdoor stands on sunny summer days, but Maine’s evolving and expanding local food movement challenges the notion of a “typical” farmers’ market. True, most of Maine’s 100 or so markets operate outdoors in summer, typically closing anywhere from Labor Day to Columbus Day. Many markets, however, go into fall – some until Thanksgiving, and some through December or even the entire winter.
By my count when we went to press, 18 Maine markets were going through winter, either as year-round markets continuing after summer at the same location, or moving to an indoor location, many with an abbreviated winter schedule, or as stand alone winter markets with their own members, rules, locations, schedules, etc., separate from any summer market in town.
Also, at least three more markets run a shortened winter season, through December, offering holiday shopping for gifts and/or meals.
Even these 20 or so winter markets differ hugely in size, location, rules and guidelines, logistical issues and sources of community support. Together, they create a colorful picture of one facet of Maine’s growing local food system.
Outdoor Winter Markets in Maine?!
At a gathering of Northeast, local food system advocates last winter, I noted the growth of farmers’ markets in general, and of winter farmers’ markets in Maine. I pointed out that some of the longest standing winter markets are held outdoors, including Maine’s northernmost winter market – the Orono Farmers’ Market. Jaws dropped.
“And people come?”
Sarah Smith of Grassland Farm, a MOFGA-certified organic dairy, meat and vegetable farm in Skowhegan, told me that Grassland participates in four winter markets, all outside, three of which Grassland helped found.
“We [the vendors] didn’t start these winter markets because we thought they were a good idea; we started them in response to customer demand. Customers like having access to local food all year.” The outdoor winter markets Smith attends range from a 2-hour, monthly market in downtown Waterville to a weekly, 1-1/2-hour Tuesday market at Mill Park in Augusta.
“The first two years [in Augusta], it was just me. I had customers who wanted to keep buying milk from us, and there was no other way for them to get it, so I just kept coming every week. Last year I convinced a bread vendor to come, so it was them in addition to us selling milk, meat and some vegetables. This year we hope to have at least three vendors … and we’re having the market when it’s still light out, so that makes it a little more comfortable for the vendors, and visible for customers.”
Smith also attends winter markets in Orono and Skowhegan, held on alternate Saturdays. “We’ve tried an indoor location a few times for the Skowhegan market, and we’ve found that they work much better outdoors because of increased visibility.” Visibility, a consistent location and good signage are keys to attracting customers, says Smith.
As the number of farmers’ markets in Maine has grown, the local Grange seems to be increasingly helpful. Richard Marble of the Farmington Grange says, “As local agriculture has picked back up again, the Grange is responding by providing support to agriculture again, much like it used to.” The Farmington Grange began sponsoring a year-round market last year.
Other towns where the Grange supports farmers’ markets include Washington, Topsham, East Vassalboro, Union, Bangor, Norway and Bowdoinham, several of which provide space for an indoor winter market.
The Farmington Grange insulated and heated its building to provide a more welcoming environment for the winter market held in the Grange Hall and to provide more services to farmers. It plans to install two walk-in coolers, where farmers can store products, and is planning a commercial kitchen, where, Marble says, farmers and other local food producers will be able to make value added products.
Marble expects growth for this year’s winter season, as farmers had a chance to plan(t) ahead for it. The Grange also benefits. “Many of the market vendors have joined the Grange this year,” says Marble, noting this welcome increase in interest and participation; understandably so as the oldest U.S. agricultural organization appears to be rediscovering its roots.
Two Cities, Distinct Winter Markets
It would seem natural for Portland – Maine’s largest city, and location of the “oldest farmers’ market in Maine” – to host at least one winter market. But not until late in the 2009-10 winter season did this happen, when a few dedicated farmers put a lot of volunteer time into the new Portland Winter Market.
Jaime Berhanu of Lalibela Farm, a MOFGA-certified organic farm producing tempeh in Dresden, has been a driving force behind this market. “Everything came together very last minute, so we had to scramble for vendors.” This meant the market had vendors selling products that, says Berhanu, “were clearly not from Maine.”
This year, the market is committed to being a true farmers’ market. “We want the focus to be on supporting local Maine farmers, providing a retail opportunity for them in the winter.”
This will limit the diversity of available products, since the City of Portland goes beyond state rules for farmers’ markets and does not allow food producers such as bakeries and fisheries to participate, says Berhanu.
Also, because the vacant retail space used in 2010 has been leased, the market needs a new location. “It’s challenging to find an affordable lease option [in a site zoned for retail sales] for a winter market situation where we only need the space for a portion of the year.”
Berhanu is optimistic that they will find a space for the 2010-11 season. Some 15 to 20 farmers say they want to participate, most from one or more of the weekly summer Portland markets. Berhanu and other organizers hope the winter market can eventually become part of a proposed year-round Portland farmers’ market association to better organize, manage and promote the markets. Farmers have yet to succeed in this process because they first need approval from the city. Vendors must be licensed by the city before participating, but the city provides no market management, oversight or promotion. Farmers hope to work through the challenges with the city and form an association within the next year.
The Brunswick Winter Market seems to have met with as much good fortune as the Portland Winter Farmers’ Market has met challenges. The 2010-11 season will be the third for the Brunswick Winter Market, located downtown in a large vacant space in the Fort Andross complex off Maine Street. By the second year, the market had a waiting list of vendors. Market vendor Barak Olins, owner and operator of ZU Bakery in South Freeport and one of the market organizers, says they first offer available space to existing vendors who would like to expand, then they give priority [to those on the waiting list] based on unfilled niches in product mix at the market.
The market location is a huge reason for its appeal. Customers are drawn to the large, open, heated space with lots of natural light and ample parking. Vendors enjoy the convenience of a freight elevator, loading ramp and large dollies. Also, in stark contrast to the necessarily utilitarian approach of the state’s outdoor winter markets, organizers line up live music every week and provide seating for customers to enjoy prepared foods purchased at the market. With 40-plus vendors, this is easily Maine’s largest winter market.
And it’s not the Brunswick Winter Farmers’ Market – by design. A few vendors produce food items from ingredients not grown in Maine, and the market wants to be able to allow for such product diversity. Says Olins, “We would rather not mislead customers (by calling it a farmers’ market) and be clear that we want to bring as much diversity as possible to the market.” They give priority to products grown and produced in Maine when they’re available. The Brunswick Winter Market is a separate organizational entity from either of the two summer farmers’ markets in town, although many vendors at those markets also sell at the winter market.
Yet, with the Brunswick Winter Market’s fortune comes uncertainty. “Although the owners are very supportive of the market, for legal and financial reasons we don’t have a formal lease on the space, which makes our situation a bit precarious,” says Olins. “But with the closing of the base in Brunswick, the amount of available retail space in the area is only increasing, so we hope the space will continue to be available to the market in years to come.”
Melissa White Pillsbury is a former MOFGA organic marketing coordinator.
Maine’s Winter Markets
To find the closest winter farmers market to you, please follow this link to the Maine Federation of Farmers Markets up-to-date list.