MACHIAS, Maine — The basement of a hardware store is the last place you might expect to find organic fresh produce, meat and dairy products from local farms, but not in downtown Machias.
The Machias Marketplace is a buyers club operated by Inez Lombardo from a large room below Main Street’s Machias Hardware. Club customers order farm goods once a week, later stopping by to pick up and pay for orders delivered and filled by participating farms.
On any given week customers find tomatoes, potatoes, lettuce and onions among other local foods.
The Marketplace now takes orders by email each week from about 50 customers, but is expanding its customer base by adding a la carte food items, which can be purchased at the club without ordering in advance. That option, Lombardo says, brings in about 20 customers a week.
“The point of the club, initially, was the make it more convenient to buy from the farmers,” Lombardo said.
Lombardo took over operations of the Marketplace in 2008, when it was a home-based operation. She was well suited for the task, having been both a customer and a farmer. Since then she has increased not only the number of orders made, but also the number of farms bringing in goods.
“We’re adding a new farmer almost every week,” Lombardo said proudly.
Machias Marketplace now offers pre-order food items from eight farms in Washington County, with three more bringing in a la carte goods only. Lombardo expects even more to sign on before the end of summer. The Marketplace also offers goods from Crown of Maine, a service that distributes produce from small farms throughout the state.
Lombardo believes that the biggest reason for the market’s growth is its website. Customers log on to view available products and place orders electronically. Instead of visiting farmers markets to buy directly, customers choose from an ever-changing inventory of goods from the comfort of their keyboards.
“The club makes it more convenient for customers to buy from farmers,” Lombardo said. “It’s also better for farmers; sometimes they don’t have time to sit at a farmers market.”
Due to the success the farms have had through the club, Lombardo is planning to expand the range of produce it offers customers. The farms associated with the Marketplace are also producing crops over longer growing seasons with the introduction of greenhouses.
“The website allows customers to have more options, which inspires the farms to do more,” Lombardo said.
Machias Marketplace doesn’t only cater to paying customers, having teamed up with Tide Mill Farms to participate in FarmShare, a state-sponsored program that provides seniors with free produce. Eligible seniors enrolled in the program receives about $50 a week in free vegetables and fruits from participating farms. When Machias Marketplace opens on Fridays for its FarmShare patrons, Lombardo says the line stretches out the door.
Even with all the growth that Lombardo has generated for the Marketplace, she’s still looking to the future.
“We’re trying to keep it varied,” she said. “I’m planning on sitting down with the farmers and determining who is best to sell what crops. On the other hand, competition never hurt anybody.”
For information on buying food directly from Washington County farms, visit the Machias Marketplace website at machiasmarketplace.org, or the storefront behind Machias Hardware on Main Street in Machias.