MACHIAS, Maine — Farmers across the state are working to create a Maine Farmers Market Association that could provide them with networking opportunities, skills, resources and other benefits such as insurance.
The idea was hatched at the 2010 Farmers Market Convention in Belfast when individual farmers wanted resources such as the convention provided regularly, not just one weekend a year.
Farmers markets have exploded in Maine over the past few years. When the state’s Commissioner of Agriculture Seth Bradstreet recognized the first-ever Maine’s Farmers Market week in 2008, there were 80 active markets.
This year, there were 104.
The public’s desire for locally produced goods has transformed farmers markets from veggies sold off the back of a pickup truck to markets with dozens of vendors, music and community-oriented activities.
“This is why the need is so great for a statewide umbrella organization,” Sarah Joy Chaples of the Washington Hancock Community Agency’s Down East Business Alliance said Thursday.
Chaples said WHCA was host to this year’s Maine Farmers Market Convention in Belfast, where the idea of a statewide group was hatched.
“Since then, we put some feelers out and we have had some pretty significant feedback,” she said. “There is incredible support out there.”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports more than 5,000 farmers markets operate nationwide — a record number, up from 2,800 in 2000. Sales generated by farmers markets nationally have been estimated to exceed $1 billion a year, with most of the money going directly to small, family farmers.
A core group of farmers and agriculturists in Maine have been meeting this year to fine-tune a statewide association.
Tom Roberts of Snakeroot Organic Farm in Pittsfield explained that such a group could be vital for Maine’s producers.
“Every farmers market has its problems, sometimes big ones, sometimes little ones,” Roberts said Thursday. “Often even regional cross-fertilization of ideas, enhanced when members attend several markets, is not enough to come to grips with the bewildering array of questions that come up during a market’s operation over the years. Thus comes the idea of a central clearing house of ideas and solutions, a place where the collective wisdom of markets statewide can be made available to all, and where the interests of Maine’s farmers markets as a whole can be spoken in one voice.”
Roberts said a Maine Federation of Farmers Markets did exist between 1991 and 1997 but “fell apart due to a lack of interest.”
He said that today there are a lot more farmers markets and a lot more customers at farmers markets.
“Everyone seems to be doing quite well,” he said, adding that farmers markets have become a vital part of many communities, thereby ensuring the success of a statewide association.
Chaples and Roberts said farmers would be meeting at the Maine Agricultural Trades Show in Augusta in early January and then at the market convention on Jan. 29 in Belfast to set up the association.
Roberts said the group is assessing the needs of Maine’s farmers markets and would like to poll as many market members around the state as possible.
Local farmers could benefit, for instance, from a website and forums for the distribution of farmers market information. An association could help provide insurance rates and plans and a comparison of providers for markets and market members. Other benefits of such an organization might include help with promotions and pricing, how to establish a market, or maintaining a winter market.
Roberts said a statewide association could also assist farmers with “big picture” issues such as the role of the farmers market movement in the larger local foods, local purchasing, micro-enterprise, slow food, slow money, women in business, and other related social-economic movements.
Chapels said a formal presentation would be made at the January market convention.
Any farmer interested in more information about the proposed association may contact Chaples at email@example.com, or 664-2424, ext. 4460.
A full listing of Maine’ s farmers markets can be found at www.getrealmaine.com.
The link to the DBA Farmers Market Convention schedule and information may be found at http:// www.whcacap.org/farm-to-market/farmers-market-convention/index.php.