BELFAST, Maine — Every Saturday from May to November for the past 14 years, farmer Mark Guzzi of Peacemeal Farm in Dixmont has risen before dawn, loaded up his trucks and headed to the Orono Farmers Market, where he often finds his customers already in line.
Guzzi said Friday that there are lots of positive developments in Maine agriculture — an expanding customer base, a greater effort to produce diversified crops, and a greater profit — but there are also issues for developing markets. These include space, fee structures, how to expand and a half-dozen other details of managing a successful and growing market.
Guzzi was one of more than 100 Maine farmers, producers and agriculture officials who attended the third annual Maine Farmers’ Market Convention Friday to get help with those issues and to continue working to expand the availability of local foods across the state.
Judy Blaisdell of the Maine Department of Agriculture said the state has 99 official farmers markets, ranging from some that were established more than 30 years ago to startup markets that are organizing.
From round-table discussions throughout the day, several things were clear: Maine agriculture is thriving; Maine consumers are demanding high-quality local food; and an abundant diversity is key to the success of Maine’s farmers markets.
Along with vegetables, meat and dairy, Maine’s farmers markets are offering everything from concerts to children’s entertainment and food stamp machines.
“This is a very exciting time for farmers and markets,” Blaisdell said. “This type of networking is exactly what we need.”
Blaisdell said all of the various workshops and discussions held Friday were scheduled because the farmers and the vendors specifically asked for them at last year’s event.
Some of the workshops covered topics such as EBT marketing for food stamp customers, year-round markets, social networking strategies, how municipalities can support farmers markets, food safety, insurance and event planning.
Roxanne Eflin, program director of the Maine Downtown Center, said farmers markets have evolved from a wooden crate filled with squash by the side of the road to economic engines that are revitalizing downtown areas and becoming an integral part of the local business scene.
“Local markets keep money locally,” she said. Success stories abound, she said, such as the partnership between the town of Skowhegan’s doctors and its farmers market. At every local doctor’s visit, patients are presented with a $5 voucher to be used at the market.
Barrels is a downtown Waterville store that features all Maine produce, meats, dairy and other foods that “is blowing the doors off all projections,” Eflin said.
The partnership between municipalities and farmers markets is mutually beneficial, said Kelly Veral of the Project for Public Spaces, based in New York City.
She said the immediate benefits to a community when a farmers market is established includes neighborhood and downtown renewal, the blending of diverse people, the creation of an active public space, economic opportunities, the promotion of public heath, and a bridge between urban and rural economies.
Daily access to local food is so important in some places, such as Barcelona, Spain, she said, that there is a law in place requiring a public market within a 10-minute walk of every resident.
“There are 42 farmers markets in the city of Barcelona,” Veral said. “What a vibrant economy this has fostered.” In Detroit, Mich., the city has committed itself to bolstering access to local foods with a $50 million investment in farmers markets.
Other ways that municipalities can help farmers markets is by providing space, helping with signage and permits, accessing funds, assisting with marketing and installing land use protections.
“Downtown revitalization is all about community and getting everyone engaged,” Eflin said. “Link the market with local restaurants. Link it with local art walks. Host a market photo contest. Make it a party and add music.”
Some Maine communities also have authorized their local general assistance administrators to provide vouchers for the market to be used by those in need of food.
The convention, sponsored by the Down East Business Alliance, the Quimby Family Foundation, the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, Johnny’s Selected Seeds, Farm Credit East and Bangor Savings Bank, will continue Saturday, Jan. 29, when discussions will focus on the creation of a statewide farmers market association.
“This could be a strong voice for Maine agriculture, particularly in the Legislature,” Blaisdell said.