BELFAST, Maine — In the past, when farmers markets were established in a community, they were expected to run from June to September, capitalizing on the peak of the summer harvest season.
Tents were set up, customers strolled in the warm summer weather, and music and other outdoor events could be scheduled to augment the open-air festival atmosphere of markets.
But now, not only are most farmers markets looking for locations to expand in the off-season, but newly formed markets such as the Woodlawn Farmers’ Market in Ellsworth are being set up on the assumption they will operate year-round.
Even the intrepid farmers who show up twice a month in the winter at the outdoor Orono Farmers’ Market are now seeking an indoor winter space.
“It was always a part of the plan to move indoors in the winter,” Lexie Watson of Little Red Hen, a Bar Harbor company that sells baked goods at the market, told farmers at the Maine Farmers’ Market Convention in Belfast this weekend.
More than 100 Maine farmers and agriculture leaders attended the two-day conference Friday and Saturday at the University of Maine’s Hutchinson Center to network and participate in a variety of workshops and seminars. This is the third year the convention has been held.
State officials have estimated that more than half of Maine’s 99 summer farmers markets also operate in the winter or are contemplating a winter location.
Farmers that sell at winter markets said it is a boon for both the customers and the farmers: The farmers get an additional season of income as well as making a year-round connection with the customers, and the customers get year-round access to local food.
The expansion from summer to year-round was customer-driven, Watson and two other farmers said, and has prompted changes in the way farmers farm.
“We spent a lot of time asking our summer customers what they wanted, and they spread the word,” Watson said.
Karen Sparrow of Sparrow Farm in Pittston, which sells eggs, vegetables and cranberries at the Bath Farmers’ Market, said that not only did the market’s customers want the market to continue all winter, they assisted in finding a permanent indoor location, sent e-mails to each other announcing the change, and even hung post-ers around Bath. “They really did all of it,” she said.
“At Orono, it was the same way,” John Barnstein of Maine-ly Poultry in Warren said. “Orono is very unique because it was outside, but it operates because our customers want us there. Some days it was below zero degrees and still they came. We did shorten our hours, basically to protect the vendors from freezing to death.”
Barnstein sells his poultry and rabbits at nine summer markets and four winter markets.
He said the Brunswick Farmers’ Market at Fort Andross, a giant mill complex, is so popular in the winter that it has become a community gathering place.
“We have dozens of vendors, music and a large space for the children to dance and play,” he said.
But shifting from an outdoor to an indoor setting is not without adjustments, he said. “Because winter markets are totally new concepts, we are sort of making the rules up as we go along. It is a never-ending, evolving process,” he said.
All three vendors acknowledged that loading and unloading is much more difficult compared to summer markets, when a vendor can just pull up to a space and set up a tent.
“We have to bring in 12 to 15 heavy coolers,” Barnstein said. “It is much more labor-intensive.”
The farmers also have to be creative in finding indoor spaces. “If you are only there every other week, three hours a day, six months of the year, your site needs to be a spot that is always available, not a retail location that could be rented to someone else a month down the road.
The winter markets in Bath and Gardiner are in churches. The Bangor Farmers Market is in a greenhouse, and the one in Brunswick is located in Fort Andross, a sprawling mill.
The farmers who choose to market all winter said it has been a real learning process. Some have installed heated greenhouses, berries are frozen, and more storable crops are grown to be offered in winter.
If any single vendor at a winter market is growing and selling greens, that will draw in customers for all, they said.
“We have to become more and more creative at what we can sell people,” Sparrow said. “It becomes a different mindset for the farmers.”
Typical offerings at a winter market include eggs, butter, dairy products, maple syrup, baked goods, cheese, meat and fish, as well as storable vegetables such as carrots, beets, potatoes or squash. Some markets offer more exotic goods such as mushrooms and coffee, and there are always prepared items such as jams and jellies.
“This really helps keep Maine farms in people’s minds all year long,” said Sparrow.
Lists and contacts for Maine’s Winter Farmers’ Markets can be found at: