BELFAST, Maine — Hundreds of farmers gathered at the University of Maine Hutchinson Center this weekend for the second annual Farmers Market Convention, sharing ideas, marketing strategies and solutions.
Judy Blaisdell of the Maine Department of Agriculture said, “This has been a fabulous forum, and something the farmers markets have desperately needed. It’s a great opportunity for the vendors and market masters.”
The convention, which was held Friday and Saturday, was sponsored by the Down East Business Alliance, and attendance this year doubled over last year’s.
“Farmers told us what they wanted: business training, marketing information, pricing guidelines and connection with other farmers,” Sarah Joy Chapels of DBA said Saturday.
The popularity of Maine’s farmers markets, which have doubled in the past five years and now number more than 65, is built on the back of the buy-local movement.
“Maine residents are 100 percent behind their local farmers,” Blaisdell said.
What the conference reinforced, not to anyone’s surprise, is that every market has different challenges. It could be geography, the number of customers or number of vendors.
Keith Small of the DBA said that at Stonington, for example, more than 400 customers line up at vendors’ booths during a two-hour span each week. “They are struggling with how to efficiently use the small space they have,” he said.
At Machias, however, there is a wealth of space for the market on the town’s dike, but a lack of vendors. “With enough farmers’ participation, Machias has great potential,” Small said.
Betsy Fitzgerald, Machias town manager, attended the conference to try to grow the local market.
“I’m here to learn how to realize that potential,” she said.
Former Agriculture Commissioner Robert Spear, himself a diverse farmer in southern Maine, said the conference provided a great opportunity for market masters and vendors to network.
“One of the problems Maine has is that there is no formal organization to link the state’s farmers markets,” Spear said. “I give the DBA a lot of credit for pulling all this together. Farmers markets need to get organized under a statewide farmers market association. We need more structure, more organization.”
Spear said the workshops presented at the convention provided tips and suggestions for working with customers, easing the farm-to-market transition for farmers, online promotion and ordering systems, state regulations for selling food, pricing products, new market regulations and developing community-supported farmers markets.
But Chapels said farmers were telling her that the most important part of the conference was the individual, face-to-face networking between farmers.
“This type of feedback and networking is a key piece,” Chapels said. “Most of the year, farmers are so busy they just don’t have time to connect with each other, whether it is across the state or across town.”
During the convention, Blaisdell was concentrating on working with farmers to have their farm locations and descriptions listed on Maine’s updated GetReal, GetMaine Web site.
“The old system was hard to read and follow,” she said. The new site allows visitors to find local farms, including contact information and descriptions of products, as well as maps to the farms, dates and times of statewide farmers markets, and a continuously updated schedule of agriculture events.
The site can be found at www.getrealmaine.com.