NEWPORT, Maine — On a recent Friday morning, Debbie Bradstreet propped open the wide doors of her Newport farmstand and flipped over the sign hanging nearby, from “Closed” to “Open,” promptly at 10 a.m. A few customers already were waiting in their cars and trucks in the gravel driveway, and more arrived within minutes, eager to get the best of the morning’s fresh produce.
Among the first to walk through the doors was Nancy Booth, 65, who lives in a nearby senior housing complex. She made a beeline for a quart of sweet blueberries before turning her attention to the big bin of corn picked earlier that morning.
Booth is a dedicated customer at the Bradstreet farmstand, the more so since she joined the Maine Senior FarmShare program five years ago. Now in its 15th season, the federally funded program puts free local produce on the tables of low-income Maine seniors, to the benefit of farmers and seniors alike.
Maine Senior FarmShare is funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which this year allocated about $923,000 for Maine’s program. To qualify for Senior FarmShare, seniors may earn no more than $21,775 a year for a one-person household or $29,471 per year for a two-person household. Native Americans can qualify at age 55; for everyone else, the age threshold is 60. This year, almost 17,000 Maine seniors and about 105 farms are participating across the state.
The program runs on the Community Supported Agriculture model. Early in the springtime, each senior in the program receives a $50 credit and registers with one of the participating farmers. The money is paid directly to the farmer, providing an infusion of cash at a time when up-front expenses are high and the growing season ahead is uncertain. Then, as produce becomes available, the member enjoys a modest supply — a “share”— of the grower’s fresh vegetables, fruits and herbs, courtesy of the federal program. Some farmers will deliver produce to seniors’ homes or a central location — convenient for those with limited mobility or transportation — while others prefer to have seniors visit their farms or far stands, which allows seniors to select from the offerings of the day and enjoy the social interaction of an outing.
While $50 is not much money, it’s a start to a healthier diet in summertime for the seniors who participate.
“It’s very good for me,” Booth said cheerfully, picking through a box of juicy string beans. “I’m alone, and $50 worth of fresh fruits and vegetables is a lot.”
Booth said she spends her credit a little at a time over the growing season.
“I’ll buy four ears of corn today, eat two tonight and put the rest in the freezer for corn chowder in the winter,” she explained.
Also purchasing some corn was James Fraser, 79, of Palmyra. He chose a dozen plump ears and carried them to the cash-out table, staffed by farmstand volunteer Juanita Mitchell. She plucked a yellow card with Fraser’s name on it out of a thick stack on the counter, subtracted the value of his purchase — $5.50 — from his FarmShare balance and gave him the card to initial. He had $36 and change remaining.
Both Fraser and his wife receive the $50 Senior FarmShare credit.
“She buys beets, cucumbers, tomatoes — the things she likes. I buy corn, and later on I’ll buy some potatoes,” he said. “I still raise some potatoes in my garden, but not enough to last the winter.”
Farmer Seth Bradstreet, who served as commissioner of agriculture under former Gov. John Baldacci, said the program is a great success.
“This is the one program that directly connects farmers with their customers,” he said.
Paying farmers ahead of the growing season not only helps pay for seed, fertilizer and other expenses but also guarantees a steady flow of dedicated customers over the course of the summer and fall, Bradstreet said.
And, Bradstreet noted, demand is high. Each participating farm is allotted a certain number of shares to fill — from as few as five to several hundred — based on both the capacity of the farm and the demographics of the area it serves. The Bradstreet farm is providing more than 400 senior shares this year, according to state records.
“We could easily double the number of people we serve now,” Bradstreet said, but this year’s funding has been allocated.
In Sangerville, fellow Maine Senior FarmShare grower Sid Stutzman agrees.
“There is a huge need among the elderly in this area,” said Stutzman, a third-generation farmer in this rural Piscataquis County community. “These people have worked in the mills around here all their lives, and a lot of them are really living on almost no money at all now — maybe $10,000 or $11,000 a year. This is serious stuff.”
Stutzman has participated in Maine Senior FarmShare since 2001, its inaugural year. Like Bradstreet, he provides for about 400 seniors each year through the FarmShare program. Additionally, for the past 10 years or more, he also has served additional seniors through an “adopt-a-senior” program he started.
Stutzman said it became clear that the program couldn’t serve all those who qualify so he offers shares for another 175 local seniors that are paid for through his local “adopt-a-senior” fundraisers and through donations. The fundraisers feature home-grown music — Stutzman plays guitar and mandolin with other local musicians — a great, farm-cooked meal and a box for donations. In addition, residents can directly donate $50 for someone on Stutzman’s Maine Senior FarmShare waiting list of qualifying local seniors, ensuring they have access to fresh produce over the growing season.
Stutzman also directly solicits local business and individuals for support.
“There is a lot of goodwill involved,” he said of his fundraising efforts. “Every little bit helps. In a small neighborhood like Piscataquis County, we all kind of know each other.”
Stutzman says his senior customers shop carefully and make the most of their $50 credit.
“They’ll call me up in January or February and tell me they just finished off their last jar of tomatoes or their last winter squash,” he said. “It’s a matter of pride for them that they make it last so long.”
In Augusta, program manager Julie Waller of the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, agrees that $50 doesn’t go far.
“But this program fosters a valuable relationship between seniors and farmers,” she says. “Once the seniors become buyers, they’ll visit the farmer again and again, sometimes bringing their friends and families with them. This is really a great program for both the seniors and the farmers.”
Maine has participated in the USDA program since its inception in 2001. Most participating farmers have a waiting list of eligible seniors in their areas. For information or to get on a waiting list, visit the website of the Maine Senior FarmShare program or call your local Area Agency on Aging at 877-353-3771.