|Hanne Tierney of Cornerstone Farm in Palmyra is a strong proponent of farmers’ markets. English photo
Farmers’ Markets and Strong Communities
Sunday, September 23, 2018 – Common Ground Country Fair, Unity, Maine
Hanne Tierney has been farming in central Maine for 17 years. She owns and operates Cornerstone Farm, a hog and organic vegetable farm in Palmyra. She has a passion for selling at farmers’ markets and thrives on creating her displays and on the chaos of a bustling day at market. Tierney embraces the long-held Maine tradition of cooperatively run farmers’ markets. She enjoys the puzzle of setting up a market as a whole and encouraging farmers to have a voice in how the market is operated. Focusing on creating positive relationships between farmers and the municipalities that host farmers’ markets, Tierney has become an advocate for farmers’ markets across Maine. She has served on the board of the Maine Federation of Farmers’ Markets since 2011 and has chaired the board since 2015. She also chairs the Downtown Waterville Farmers’ Market and the Portland Farmers’ Market. The Common Ground Country Fair keynote speaker on September 23, 2018, she addressed ways in which farmers’ markets build strong communities throughout Maine. Her talk is posted on YouTube and appears below, edited slightly for length.
Welcome to the fair! At my home there is “The Fair” and then there are other fairs that need names, like the Skowhegan Fair or the Fryeburg Fair, but this fair is “The Fair.” It’s a celebration of my family’s and what I think of as my community’s way of life, our religion and who we are. So it’s really cool that I get to talk to you here today.
Who am I?
I’m a mom. I will probably mention my two rock star kids at least once every 5 minutes because they are a huge part of my farm and my marketing.
I am a farmer. I own Cornerstone Farm in Palmyra, and we’ve been selling at farmers’ markets for 16 years. Our farm is mostly pigs and organic veggies. Last year we sold 89.5 percent of our product directly to the consumer at farmers’ markets, 9 percent directly to the consumer at the Fair as hot dogs and 1.5 percent from our farm as part of our weekly CSA. We don’t have a farm stand.
I am passionate about local food and farmers’ markets, and I absolutely love being a farmer. I love that there are seasons with different tasks, joys and hardships. I enjoy physical exertion and am also fairly competitive, although over time I’ve become more competitive trying to beat my own records rather than others’.
I Care About Markets
Because I sell so much of my product at farmers’ markets, I think a lot about how to improve markets. Our end goal is to feed people while maintaining a tiny bit of sanity and a little quality of life. We do that by going to markets, so everything we do is about getting high quality products to market.
I try hard to listen to folks who have been doing this much longer than I have. I also try to not become a grumpy curmudgeon and to hear and consider new farmers’ excitement and ideas. It’s funny: I used to have a harder time staying open minded to the curmudgeon’s point of view; now it seems harder to stay open to the new, exciting ideas … maybe that’s where I am in my life.
For my farm to do well, I need a reliable venue to sell my products. For me, those are farmers’ markets. For my farm to be healthy, my markets need to be healthy. For my market to be healthy, people need to have a positive perception of farmers’ markets throughout Maine. To that end I feel it is important for me to serve in leadership roles – on my farm, in my markets and with the Maine Federation of Farmers’ Markets. My point: It is equally important for the market to be awesome as it is for my farm to be awesome. And it is vitally important for my farm that other folks have awesome farmers’ markets.
I often hear, “How can you lead a market if you are a farmer?” My thought is, “How can you lead a market if you’re not a farmer?” Some feel that farmers would take advantage of the role and take the best spot or take some other advantage. In reality I more often compromise my own stand for the wellbeing of the market as a whole, to make the entire
setup of the market look better, or to create better customer flow through the market, or to help create rules that help level the playing field for all the producers.
About Farmers’ Markets
We have 130 farmers’ markets in Maine – That’s amazing! That number increased dramatically around 2009, when we saw a 200 or 300 percent increase. The number and diversity of vendors at market also increased. After years of young people leaving Maine farms to find other work, now young people are coming to Maine from all over the country and the world, specifically to farm. MOFGA’s journeypeople-in-residence are a great example. Flywheel Flowers is owned and operated by one of my favorite Iowans. She’s now becoming a Mainer. Carole Mapes came here in 2013, first as an apprentice and then as an employee on my farm, until she launched her own farm. Carole then drew her sister to farm here as well. I don’t believe either of them has any intention of leaving.
What does this mean for Maine communities? I think only good things. About 60 percent of Maine’s farmers’ markets are led by women. These markets offer a huge diversity of products: meats, produce, fruits, breads, mushrooms, hard ciders and wines, fresh roasted coffee, flowers, bedding plants, dairy products, fresh milk, even food trucks at some. The majority of Maine markets are cooperatively run, meaning the farmers and vendors make the majority of the choices that affect the health of their own market. This is unique to Maine.
Most of these markets also depend on some entity to host them, either a municipality or a private organization. Some are on university property, some in parks, some on city streets. A fair amount of background conversation needs to take place before a market can find its home.
Maine was the first state in the country to have a law about farmers’ markets. That law says that 75 percent of what a farmer sells at market has to be grown by that farm; if the farmer chooses to buy in an additional 25 percent, that product must be purchased directly from another Maine farm. Farmers’ markets are any group of two farmers or more selling together. Several Maine markets have chosen to be no buy-in markets, where vendors grow everything they sell.
Farmers’ markets are economically good for Maine. For farmers, they involve no middleman; 100 percent of those dollars go right into the farmers’ hands. Whether the farmer gets to keep them or not is another thing.
Good for Communities
Maine’s history of working off the land and sea, in the paper and fishing industries, is part of our collective psyche. With these industries struggling and our young people leaving, small agriculture and market farming may be able to make up for that loss economically and psychologically in some small way.
Farmers’ markets bring people into our struggling downtowns where they spend money at local small businesses as well as at farmers’ markets.
Farmers’ markets are a meeting place, bringing people from all classes and ages together for a few hours each week. Markets are places for friends to meet and to shop together. I have regular customers who bring their friends for personal introductions to meet us. You see more friendly conversations than at other places; more kindness and more personal interaction. One of my recent favorite moments was a man in his flip flops and his baggy shorts walking his golden doodle. This 3- or 4-year-old girl sees the dog from across the park. She starts shrieking with complete and utter joy, and she drags her dad over to have this amazingly wonderful interaction with the golden doodle and the really chill guy. To me farmers’ markets are places for this kind of interaction. They’re a safe, comfortable spot for the community.
They provide local fresh food for so many people. They connect people to their food. Often customers connect with local food by searching the farmers’ markets for that perfect first strawberry of the year, that ideal heirloom tomato or the sweetest ear of corn. In that search they may find a lot more. They may learn a bit about the seasons or the weather from a farmer or fellow customer. Some learn that we grow things they might not expect, like ginger or okra; others find (and I have been asked) that it’s unlikely to find a Maine-grown orange. Some are just learning the difference between a spaghetti squash and a red kuri.
Home gardeners and family cooks get lots of advice here. My daughter, now 16 years old, often staffs our register and has for a number of years. At age 7 she was explaining how to cook the perfect Delicata squash or how to separate our sausages to use just a few and leave the rest frozen. Regardless of who is sharing – customers with farmers, farmers with customers, customers with customers – farmers’ markets are a great place for that education. About 80 percent of my cooking was learned from markets.
Farmers’ markets also provide an opportunity to see what’s possible. You might not know it’s possible to grow such beautiful melons as Grace [in the audience], but she’s rocking it. You might not understand how great a cheese can be made – and there it is [from Heather, also in the audience] at the market.
Markets Are Good for Farmers
No farm is too small for a farmers’ market. They have a low-cost point of entry. They are the cheapest storefront ever! If you can get to market, that’s the expensive part. You can grow slowly or quickly, depending on your energy or ambition. You can not grow and just be the size that you want to be. Side by side you’ll see the stand of a 50-acre farm and a 3-acre farm. Maybe you can’t tell the difference at a glance.
Farmers’ markets already have a customer base. If you enter a farmers’ market, other vendors share that customer base and that community with you. That’s really helpful as a beginning farmer. Farmers’ markets have a community of farmers and customers to support you in so many ways. Farming can often be isolating, and here is an instant community willing to take you in. Last year my daughter and I were talking about a customer reaction, and she said, “Well yeah, that guy – he’s the one who convinced me to take two math classes last year. He used to be a math teacher, and he told me I could handle it.” So this random bit of community that I had no idea existed changed her entire year and set her forward one more year for math classes.
You can offer any amount that you want to sell. There’s no commitment like there might be in a restaurant or wholesale order. I may have planned to grow 240 or 1,000 pounds of broccoli, but maybe I only managed to grow 40 pounds. At market, that’s OK; you just make a smaller broccoli display.
Farmers Are Good for Markets
Farmers are so proud of their products. Has anybody looked at all those farmers’ market Facebook pages? We show off our vegetables as much as we possibly can. We are excited to share successes. I just posted a picture of a 1 1/2-pound beautiful red pepper.
We also want to provide good customer care. Whether or not you shop at our stand is really important to the success of our farm.
We’re often the one selling our product, so we know how to grow, prepare and use it. We live off local sales, but we also live off the actual eating of our own products. So we know how to cook them, and we like to share that. Farmers trade with each other, so they can tell you what else is awesome at market.
Farmers often have a fierce sense of shop local, and we share that as well.
Farmers’ Markets Are Good for Me
We sell almost all of our products at farmers’ markets. It was a safe and supportive space for my daughter to learn how to be a professional. She’s learned math, the artistic eye for display, the need for calm efficiencies, how to talk to people the average child in Maine does not interact with, and she’s about to learn how to parallel park a box truck. ( I guess I’ve learned all these things, too.)
I love farming and the addiction to physical work: the lifting, moving, thinking. The market is an extension of that. Market is a moment for me to present my best front, to be positive, active and happy.
Markets have allowed my farm to morph from a grass-fed beef operation to a pastured hog operation to a hog-veggies-seedling-flower operation. Do you know of any other such flexible market for local products? I don’t.
I consider my community the farmers, the customers, the volunteers of my markets. It’s funny having a community that feels so tight and strong that stretches from Cape Elizabeth to Buxton and Sanford, and way north of Bangor! It also covers a huge age range, from babies to elderly. Some of my favorite people and most valued relationships are with people on the extremes.
It includes people who value food, work, thought process, cooperation; it includes organic farmers and conventional farmers. It’s a huge range of people with so many common goals.
Common Perceptions of Farmers’ Markets
People say, “The farmer next to you is your competition; why are you helping him or her?” The farmer next door is growing the corn that I don’t want to grow, and they got you to come to market today for that corn, and you happened to also buy my pork and my heirloom tomatoes. The farmer next door is the one who talked me through how to adjust that stupid tractor implement that had gotten the better of me for the last two weeks, or told me about a better way to attach plastic to my hoophouse. The farmer next door may live a little farther south than me, and their spinach is a week earlier than mine, but it also runs out a week earlier, so the customer gets a longer spinach season, which makes them come to market. You can erase “spinach” and put in almost any vegetable; our season is longer because it covers more distance.
If the farm stand [next to yours] looks great and they’re rocking it, the farmers’ market looks great, and then I’m going to rock it.
I could go on, but basically the farmer next to me is probably working his or her tail off every day and rocking in his or her own way, which is probably a little different than how I work my tail off, and thus we have things to add individually to market. Even if we sell similar items, our stands are going to look different, and we’re going to add different values to that market. And hey, a little competition makes our stands sharper and our prices competitive! It’s good to remember that we all need each other as fellow vendors to make market a success.
People say, “Things at market are so expensive!” My first question to that is, “Is that true?” With veggies I say a straight up “no.” I think our bunches are bigger; our food is fresher, so you get longer shelf life; we offer more deals – seconds, bulk, two-for deals. I admit that a large part of the produce that I eat comes from our farm, but as a veggie farmer, I have a debit-style CSA with another veggie farm. I regularly buy from or trade with dozens of others for things that I don’t currently have. Just because my melons aren’t in doesn’t mean I don’t want to eat someone else’s melons, because we feel that this is the best way to buy products for the dinner table at the best price.
Meat pricing is a little different. Meat is such a product of scale and mechanization. I pay the same amount to process an animal as I do to feed it. Of course we’re going to pay more to support a family-run butcher who does everything carefully by hand with skill and craft on each animal than we are for a huge machine-operated processing plant that barely touches the animal and needs that animal to meet very specific criteria to fit its machinery. We are going to pay more for grain that we buy 6 tons at a time than for large loads that would come on a freight train. And our animals are going to grow slower using practices that we deem more humane and aimed at an animal’s quality of life. Large-scale meat production came around because it’s cheaper and efficient. I would prefer not to eat that meat. I see ads in grocery store flyers for pork chops costing $1.99 per pound. That should be a warning, not an advertisement! So yeah, meat costs more – so eat a healthy amount, eat less, pay more and sleep at night knowing that you did.
In summary, animal products may cost more, and that’s a good thing. Everything else, I don’t think so! But remember, all the money you spend at market supports your neighbor, your farmer and other locals in your community.
People say, “There’s so much politics at farmers’ markets.” I’m going to start with a bit of an eye roll and then say, “Yes, but why?” Farmers’ markets are cooperatively run, which means we don’t hire someone to organize us. We share the tasks of promoting, organizing, parking, arranging, membership, interacting with municipalities and negotiating with our hosts. We problem solve. We do all this through a democratic process of discussion and voting – usually at two to four, sometimes long group meetings in the winter. We are all business owners, strong willed, fiercely independent. Yes, there is disagreement at these meetings. It is up to the farmers to have a voice, to convince fellow farmers that ideas are good or right or useful. It does lead to lively conversation and discussion. If you want to be part of a market, you need to find a way to participate in those so that you can be part of the cooperation.
That said, as a leader in the cooperation, I see it as my job to make room for those less prone to participate to join in, to make ways for them to learn how to have a voice – but it is real and it is part of it, and even the leaders of these organizations just have one vote!
People say, “Markets are so hard to get into for vendors.” That is more true now than it was 15 years ago when I started as a farmers’ market vendor. But there are ways to make it easier. Be kind, helpful and humble. Apply on time. Go to the market website to find out how you get in, and then follow that process. Be informed about the market, through its website, through visiting the market, through enjoying the market; be a customer. Make a good reputation for yourself. Markets are cooperative, so for me to vote for you to become a member of a market, it means that I want to work with you every week at market, but also through the decision-making that organizes the market. Sometimes that is more important to me than the product you sell.
Many markets are full and have no more physical space, so don’t be offended if you don’t get in. Start, maybe, as a big fish in a small pond, or a small fish in a small pond. I can make as much in the Waterville Farmers’ Market, a much smaller market, than in Portland, where I’m a little fish in a big pond. That is the awesome thing about markets. You are part of the management team just by joining a market, so make the market what you need it to be.
“It’s sad to see the small farmers’ market,” people say. Small doesn’t mean sad! They may be an entry point for farmers. They’re a great place to get your feet wet and learn the ropes – what works for you. Cornerstone Farm started by selling at the Pittsfield and Unity farmers’ markets. Customers get awesome attention at small markets. Don’t drive by a small market. Meet the vendors; see what they have. A lot have a selection of beautiful fresh produce, picked just for you. You can have a great market with just two vendors. They are weekly celebrations of local food and community, so take part in that celebration!
To conclude, markets are awesome. They bring farmers, customers and other folks together to build a critical part of our communities. They give access to local, seasonal food harvested just for you. They give a venue for farmers to sell their products. They are fun, festive, beautiful and light-hearted. Join the community by shopping at market or growing for market, because Maine’s family farms depend on Maine families eating local food as a matter of routine, and Maine farmers’ markets are a great example of the community that can grow out of that weekly connection, year-round, for generations.