Farmers’ markets growing in popularity: ‘It’s been a good year so far’
FARMINGTON - On this Labor Day, which traditionally marks the end of the summer season, area farmers are reporting their sales are up this year over last year, a credit to the crops they've been able to produce and the growing number of customers frequenting Franklin County's farmers' markets.
While an increasing number of markets have sprung up over the last few years across the county, the number of sales has kept pace and, at some markets, exceeded expectations. Market organizers credit an awareness campaign to buy locally-grown food for a fresher product that also supports the local economy.
"Our regular customers like to know their food came within 50 miles," said Mitra Luick of Aloha Rainbow Farm. Luick, the manager at the longest-running market, the Sandy River Farmers' Market, noted, "considering the economy, sales are better this year than last year." The 24-year-old market, which averages 10 vendors, is open 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., Fridays through October in the parking lot at the Narrow Gauge Cinemas.
While there are more customers coming, markets are trying new things. Some market are holding special performances, events or services that provide a bigger draw. For convenience, some are accepting credit or debit card payment and can been found online. All are at high traffic locations with easy access and parking nearby and most try to feature a variety of items. While some have two vendors who bake, one may make pies, while the other breads and muffins.
The Sandy River market has three new vendors this season, among them, The Maine Meal of Skowhegan that specializes in prepared gourmet frozen dinners and sides that use locally-grown products. "That's going gang busters at our market. It's a big draw," Luick said. Also new is Luick's hot kettle corn she makes on site at both the Sandy River and Saturday markets.
A few new markets that have opened in the last two or three years are finding success on Saturdays. A group of farmers opened Farmington's Saturday Farmers' Market in the district courthouse parking lot after a survey conducted online showed a majority wanted to shop on Saturdays because they work during the week. Facing busy Main Street with easy access and exposure, the market features an average of 10 vendors, said Sarah Marble of Marble Family Farm. New this year and proving popular is that the market accepts credit and EBT payment so cash isn't necessary. An event tent is another new marketing innovation.
"We hold an event every week that's drawing people in and the number of regular customers is growing," Marble said. The event tent at the market featured musicians performing last Saturday, and have will henna body painting and a massage therapist on future Saturdays. The market, open from 9 a.m. to noon, will continue through the end of October.
Marjorie Cormier of Chesterville, started My Pie, a pie-making business just this season. She sells out every Saturday, averaging 12 to 14 pies of varying sizes sold.
"More people have been turning out each week and business has been getting better and better," Cormier said. She's pleased with her sales so far. Bonnie Clark of Clark Farm, said the second year at the Saturday market in Farmington has proven popular. Also helping, "it's been a good growing year, except for a little drought in July," but, overall, "it's been a good year so far," Clark said.
The Farmers' Market in Phillips, in its second year, has seen its popularity grow, too. Featuring 12 to 15 people selling crops and locally-made products, the Phillips market is unique because it works using a consignment model and also offers free computer repair from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. each Saturday at the American Legion hall on Depot Street.
"It's unique because people can sell something but don't have to stay at the market," market organizer Dick Stovall said. For a 10 percent fee, producers drop off their goods and Stovall and his gang do the rest. By doing that, farmers can go back to tend their farms or can opt to attend a second market to double their exposure and potential sales.
A big draw, he said, at the market is the new Nerd Nook also at the market. People with computer problems can bring them in for free servicing.
"A dozen people have come by with their computers so far," said Stovall, a computer technician. He's been able to fix all but one, which was downed by a lightning strike.
On a good Saturday, the market averages 20 to 30 first-time customers and totals anywhere from 100 to 150 customers. Volunteer Winona Davenport keeps a careful count each week.
"First weekends of the month are best for sales," Stovall noted. One reason may be people are running short at the end of the month. New next year at the market will be accepting credit and debit cards with Stovall working on providing free WiFi throughout Phillips.
New Sharon's farmers' market at Douin’s Market, at the intersection of Routes 2 and 27, had a few vendors earlier in the season, and will continue through September (except for Sept. 22 when Common Ground Fair is held), from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Currently, the market is down one vendor, Hoof 'n Paw.
The market is in its second year, has excellent visibility and an easy access parking lot. "Douin's Market provides good traffic," said Bob Basile of Hood 'n Paw. "Our regulars come, but it's not a big market."
Kingfield's market is another smaller market beginning to take off. It's held on Wednesdays, from 3 to 5:30 p.m. at the Schoolhouse Gallery, 266 Main Street, through October. Organizer Deborah Chadbourne of Rasmussen Farm, said the market features five vendors, two of which are newcomers.
"Business has been growing," she said. Chadbourne also manages the year-round, online farmers’ market, www.WesternMaineMarket.com. The site began as a project of Western Mountain Alliance in 2009, with Chadbourne taking the helm a few years ago. Since then, she's expanded order pick-ups sites to include Rangeley, Rumford, and Stratton, as have the number of vendors featured online.
"The online market is doing really well. 2012 sales have already surpassed all of 2011's," she said. "The Kingfield and Stratton pick up sites are really popular," she added. Rangeley hasn't been as popular which she said can be solved by getting the word out better.
The online option appeals to a growing customer base that can’t easily make it to the regular farmers’ markets and can select from a greater number of vendors than any other single market in the area, she said. Currently, about 20 vendors utilize the online market although not all are always active.
Sales per week online total anywhere from $230 to a recent high of $480. Chadbourne's goal last year was to hit $10,000 and this year's $12,000 goal has already been hit and she's looking at a $13,000 to $14,000 year-end total.
Some vendors will be moving to the indoor market held Saturdays at the Grange Hall in West Farmington beginning in November. That market is just a few years old and is looking to grow both its customer base and its number of vendors.
Chadbourne added that the Farmington shops, Better Living Center, Up Front & Pleasant Gourmet, and Tranten’s all provide additional sales outlets for local farmers and help make local farm products more readily available to area residents throughout the week.