SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine — A bumper crop of tomatoes from Martha Washingtons to romas shine like jewels from wooden bins. Blueberry pies from Portland’s Two Fat Cats Bakery surround a display of mums and pumpkins. Anchoring the back of the store, a butcher bends over the hind leg of a cow, slicing blood-red meat from a tendon.
When customers approach inquiring about chicken, Ben Slayton tells them to come back tomorrow.
“We process chickens on Monday, so they will be fresh on Tuesday,” he says.
Transmitting such intimate knowledge of the food people purchase and consume is one motivation driving The Farm Stand, a month-old store that operates like a year-round farmers market with walls. The joint venture between Jordan’s Farm in Cape Elizabeth and Farmers’ Gate Market in Wales aims to make buying locally raised and grown food easier for shoppers while helping farmers and food producers in the state find a year-round marketplace for their goods.
Consumers get fresh, grass-fed beef cut by a butcher, who not only knows the farms where the cows, pigs and chickens were reared, but where they were slaughtered. Sometimes the butcher even owns the very steer he is cutting. A majority of produce is grown 4 miles away on rolling, sea-scented acres by farmers who come in regularly to restock the bins with whatever is fresh.
“We are a very nimble operation,” says The Farm Stand managing partner Joe Fournier, who formerly worked for Rosemont Market in Portland. “There is nothing on this side of the bridge for fresh produce.”
A production kitchen in the back produces salsa, available this week because of the tomato bounty, and soon, ready-made meals. The vegetables being sold “changes hour to hour,” says Fournier.
As modern consumers embrace the local food movement, the concept of the neighborhood market is changing. Shoppers no longer satisfied with products trucked in are willing to pay a bit more to know where their food comes from.
“I am fired up about it,” says Ashlea Blais of South Portland, who has shopped The Farm Stand 10 times since it opened. The 47-year-old buys chicken, greens and eggs because they are additive-free and humanely raised. “It’s about getting back to the basics. I’m all for it.”
The concept and location of The Farm Stand is no last-minute brainwave or slapdash scheme. It’s a way for farmers including Penny Jordan of Jordan’s Farm in Cape Elizabeth to secure a path for the next generation of farmers, both in her family and young entrepreneurs that are moving to Maine to work the land.
“My dream of dreams is to create as much opportunity for farmers across the state as possible,” says Jordan, who tills 60 acres with her siblings and runs a popular farmstand that closes in the fall.
Jordan had her eye on South Portland for four years.
“There are no farm stands or farm-fresh markets there. No businesses that focus on the accessibility of Maine-produced meats and other products,” she says.
And the city’s makeup — young families and thirty- to fiftysomethings plugged into the Portland food scene — is a captive audience.
When she met Slayton, who has a growing reputation as a conscious-minded meat purveyor, everything clicked.
“We didn’t just plop down anywhere,” says Slayton. “We’ve listened. What we want is to re-create the neighborhood market.”
Slayton engages with customers all day long, telling them whatever part of the animal they crave, he can deliver, from whole animal bones to offal to pig’s head for head cheese.
When a Cape Elizabeth man in a Red Sox jacket buys a flat iron steak, he receives more than a slab of beef to slap on the grill.
“They are getting all the knowledge; where it came from, how the animal was treated, the breed. We know what’s going on with these animals,” says Slayton, making precise cuts with a sharp knife. “We are trying to take the anonymity out.”
An impressive array of short ribs, breakfast sausage and brats in the case before him originated from two dozen Maine farms, including Oaklands Farm in Gardiner and Old Crow Ranch in Durham, not a feedlot in the Midwest.
“It’s a great way for us to trace our meat,” he says.
Located a few short blocks between Hannaford and Shaw’s, The Farm Stand is taking a stand in Maine’s growing locavore economy. During the peak summer and fall growing seasons, a majority of produce at The Farm Stand will come from Jordan’s Farm. In the winter, Jordan will source from four-season farms.
“There is a lot of market out there, it’s getting to the market with a diversity of product that is the hard part,” says Jordan.
Increasingly people want to “eat healthy and support local farms,” but lack the time it takes to shop farm stands and farmers markets regularly, she says. At The Farm Stand you can “get in, get out and get home with a meal.”
Though farmers markets are on the rise across the country, those studying local food systems say there are some drawbacks.
“It’s not the most efficient way to get food out on tables,” says Slayton.
Time, which growers have in short supply, is critical. Traveling to markets can take hours and days away from their fields. Also, weather can be tricky. If a market is washed out, no money is made. On top of that, keeping meat, fish and fowl refrigerated outdoors for hours is arduous.
At The Farm Stand, there is a bounty waiting seven days a week, rain or shine.
“We needed to expand to grow the business and keep it viable for the next generation,” says Jordan. “South Portland is the opportunity.”
The Farm Stand, 161 Ocean St., South Portland, is open from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday.