Maine Farmers’ Markets Have a History of Building Community

March 1, 2024

By Tim King


Maine has a long history of outdoor markets that serve both local farmers and the larger community. The Portland Farmers’ Market, which has compiled an extensive history on its website (portlandmainefarmersmarket.org/history), has actually been in continuous operation longer than the U.S. Constitution has been the law of the land.

“In 1768, the town voted to establish a public market in the lower part of the Town Hall,” Portland market historians wrote in 2015. “The market served 136 families on the peninsula. Provisions were carried into town in large leather saddlebags or panniers on horses backs and it was not until about 1815 that horse wagons were generally used.”

After making several moves throughout the 19th and early 20th century, the Portland market had been reduced in size by more than 50% of its farmer-vendors when it moved a fifth time in 1976. That May, the market’s 39 vendors moved to “The Golden Triangle” (across from Federal Street), wrote the Portland market historians, who relied on the Maine Historical Society and the Portland Public Library for their research. “This move was a hopeful way to revitalize the market’s unique and colorful facet of Portland’s heritage.”

Portland public market
The first public market in Portland was in 1768. Here’s a scene from the Portland Farmers’ Market on Federal Street in 1938. Photo courtesy of the Portland Public Library Archives and the Portland Farmers’ Market

The move happened in concert with what was the beginning of a farmers’ market renaissance across Maine.

The longevity of the Portland market, along with a few others in the state, created a cultural memory of what outdoor farmers’ markets should be in the minds of Maine farmers and the general public. 

“One advantage the markets starting in the ‘70s and ‘80s had was among the public a weak but still existent recognition of what it meant to be a ‘farmers’ market,’” Tom Roberts said. Roberts owns and operates Snakeroot Organic Farm, near Pittsfield, Maine, with Lois Labbe. They’ve sold farm products at farmers’ markets for three decades, and Roberts has written extensively about farmers’ markets on a blog for the Maine Federation of Farmers’ Markets as well as on his farm’s website.

“Some markets, such as the ones in Portland and Bangor, had been operating more or less continuously since the 1800s,” he continued. “This also meant that those ‘ancient’ markets were somewhat moribund in their ways of doing things when it came to self-organization, market promotion, new member acceptance and so on. The attitude of ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!’ kept attention away from the many factors that, while not ‘broke,’ certainly could stand improving. As more new folks joined these markets, the old ways eventually gave way to modernization.”

The renewal that those new people brought to existing markets, and the new markets that they founded, was driven, in part, by a growing awareness of the failures of the industrial model of food production and an overall distrust of the industrial organization of mid-20th century life. This was true not only of the new farmers, Roberts said, but also a growing segment of the general public.

“The evolution of farmers’ markets cannot be considered without the acknowledgement of the evolution of the farmers’ market-shopping public,” he said. “Farmers’ markets are embedded in a broad economic ecosystem and do not exist as entities isolated from their environment. Growing public awareness of the unsustainability of the mainstream global food system and the danger it poses to both public health and economic equity are only some of the factors motivating the folks who shop at farmers’ markets today. As gradually the shopping public becomes aware that the various depths of alienation generated during many shopping experiences can be remedied by a visit to the farmers’ market, then the bond between shopper and farmer grows in strength.”

Portland Farmers Market
This photo of a Portland Farmers’ Market vendor weighing live chickens was originally printed in the June 16, 1940, Maine Sunday Telegram. The caption from the paper said that the three young boys “found it fun when the biddies refused to stay on the scales, flapping their wings and crackling.” Photo courtesy of the Portland Public Library Archives and the Portland Farmers’ Market


This mutual opportunity that exists between farmers and their partners, the shopping public, requires a third party to complete the synergy that makes for farmers’ markets.

As far back as the founding of the Portland Farmers’ Market, government played a role in the establishment, promotion and regulation of farmers’ markets. That’s clear in the Portland Farmers’ Market history.

“In 1917, the market moved, again, to Federal Street (the Lincoln Park side), when the city government stepped in to establish the official ‘Portland Farmers’ Market,’” the market historians wrote.

Seventy years later, in the 1990s, the Maine Legislature played an important role in supporting farmers’ marketers, according to Roberts.

With late MOFGA Executive Director Russell Libby leading the way, Roberts and Phyllis Schartner from the Bangor-Brewer Farmers’ Market Association, David Vail from Bowdoin College and others drafted a piece of legislation that State Representative Marge Kilkelly, from Wiscasset, introduced to the Legislature as The Farmers’ Market Bill.

“The bill passed the House and Senate, and when signed by Governor John McKernan became law in 1992,” Roberts said. “Without the vision of Russell or the persistence of Marge, there would never have been such a bill passed. Their understanding of the need to involve folks actually attending farmers’ markets was a measure of good faith.”

With farmers, legislators and farmers’ market allies working together, the legislation clarified that Maine farmers’ markets existed to provide opportunities for local farmers to sell their farm products and opportunities for shoppers to trust that what they purchased at a market was indeed produced by local farmers.

“The gist of the farmers’ market law is to keep Maine’s farmers’ markets from turning into straight peddler markets, where market attendees would be able to buy from any source whatever and sell to the public under the guise of being a farmer,” Roberts said. At the time, some vendors were getting deliveries from wholesalers right at the market. “The small-scale farmers who saw this happening realized that the public was being hoodwinked when such practices were happening at a farmers’ market. We wanted to keep the ‘farmer’ in farmers’ market.”

Nonprofit organizations, including MOFGA, have also become an important part of the formula for providing opportunities for farmers via farmers’ markets. The Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener advertised farmers’ market opportunities and also published resources for producers — such as “Does It Pay To Grow Vegetables For A Farmers Market?” — dating back to its inception in 1974.

Maine Harvest Bucks
Maine Harvest Bucks are “bonus bucks” that increase the value of SNAP/EBT dollars used to purchase local food. Photo courtesy of Maine Federation of Farmers’ Markets

Another nonprofit, the Maine Federation of Farmers’ Markets (MFFM), founded in 1991, has played an important role in educating and connecting farmers’ market vendors and their markets via a regular Maine Farmers’ Market Convention; a newsletter, called Selling Outdoors; and various other farmers’ market services. In 2011, thanks to a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) grant, MFFM hired its first staff person, an executive director. Over the next few years, the organization continued to increase its services to Maine farmers’ markets and by 2014 it was in a position to be part of a coalition, along with MOFGA, to apply for, and receive, a significant federal grant for nutrition incentives. The original grant funding is long gone but the program it funded, now known as Maine Harvest Bucks (MHB), had a major impact on MFFM and the culture within Maine farmers’ markets.

“The original focus of the federal grant was nutrition and food insecurity and community building,” said Emily Grassie, the nutrition incentive program coordinator at MFFM.

Grassie said that now, a decade later, the concepts of nutritional locally grown food and farmers’ markets are fused together. The Maine Harvest Bucks program is at the foundation of that fusion.

“With Maine Harvest Bucks,” Grassie explained, “shoppers at farmers’ markets who are using SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) via an Electronic Benefits (EBT) card gain access to healthy, local food and receive bonus local fresh fruits and vegetables, stretching limited benefits much further. MHB contributes to the growth of our local economy, creates community connections, and facilitates healthy eating.”

Shoppers that spend one SNAP dollar at a famers’ market get one Maine Harvest Buck. 

“Shoppers redeem Maine Harvest Bucks directly with farmers’ market vendors for fruits and vegetables that are fresh, frozen or processed with no sugar, salt or fat added,” Grassie said. “Additional eligible items include food-producing seeds, seedlings and plants, mushrooms, dried fruits, apple cider and cut culinary herbs.”

According to MFFM’s website, “In 2021, Maine Harvest Bucks led to over $700,000 in local food purchased by more than 6,000 Maine households using SNAP/EBT. That $700,000 goes directly into the hands of Maine farmers, boosting their bottom line and the local economy that these farmers support.”

That economic activity wasn’t limited to farmers’ markets, Jimmy Cesario-DeBiasi, MFFM’s executive director, pointed out. It was the result of a coalition constructed in 2014, at the time of the original federal grant, that has continued to this day. Today, while MFFM is the administrator for Maine Harvest Bucks in farmers’ markets, MOFGA administers them for Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) shares, and several other organizations administer other aspects of the project.

Cesario-DeBiasi said that he sees Maine Harvest Bucks having impacts beyond the positive nutritional and economic impacts. There’s something else going on with MHBs at farmers’ markets that can’t be measured in dollars earned or daily intake of vitamins.

“I know farmers whose opinion of what we used to call ‘welfare’ has changed because they’ve gotten to know their SNAP customers personally,” he said. “I’ve seen farmers give their produce to customers because the EBT machine isn’t working that day.”

It was that sort of community building that was envisioned by the coalition when they applied for the first grant a decade ago. But Cesario-DeBiasi said that the federal funding has been somewhat erratic and private funding, while very helpful, hasn’t been enough to always make that one-to-one match with SNAP purchases.

“On occasion we’ve had to ask market vendors to help us raise money,” he said.

In 2023 the supporters of Maine Harvest Bucks were able to work with the Maine Legislature and Maine Governor Janet Mills to fund MHBs to the tune of $660,000 annually for the next two years. That, said Cesario-DeBiasi, will allow MFFM, MOFGA and the other administrators of Harvest Bucks programs to do some long-range planning. But they are hoping for more.

“We’ve introduced another bill in this legislative session that will make the funding permanent,” he said, noting that such funding would serve 10,000 to 15,000 Maine households.

Roberts, one of the founders of the modern-day Maine farmers’ market movement, is pleased to see how MFFM has evolved to serve farmers, their markets and the broader community.

bumper crop market vouchers
Customers at Skowhegan Farmers’ Market shop with Bumper Crop market vouchers. These gift certificates, available from the Maine Federation of Farmers’ Markets, can be used at participating farmers’ markets across the state. Photo courtesy of Maine Federation of Farmers’ Markets

“With the maturity of the Maine Federation of Farmers’ Markets, markets now have a statewide lobby greater than any single market could have,” he said.

Mutually beneficial partnerships, such as farmers’ markets themselves or the coalition that founded Maine Harvest Bucks, have a tendency to spawn more mutually beneficial partnerships. Cesario-DeBiasi says that MFFM, whose board of directors must be at least 51% active farmers’ market vendors, is well on its way to creating a partnership between farmers, farmers’ markets and local businesses.

With Bumper Crop, another program, the Maine Federation of Farmers’ Markets has “created a local food currency using farmers’ market gift certificates,” Cesario-DeBiasi said. “Employers with wellness programs can give their employees farmers’ markets certificates so their employees go to farmers’ markets to buy healthy food.”

One of the unexpected results of Bumper Crop is that shoppers who have never visited farmers’ markets before are coming back, even after their certificates are spent.

What would Maine’s earliest farmers’ market vendors think? Could they have imagined the wonderful web of connections that exists today?

About the author: Tim King is a produce and sheep farmer, a journalist and cofounder of a bilingual community newspaper. He lives near Long Prairie, Minnesota.

This article was originally published in the spring 2024 issue of The Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener.

Categories
Scroll to Top
Sign up to receive our weekly newsletter of happenings at MOFGA.