Once a sign of spring and the new growing season in Maine, farmers markets are becoming a year-round tradition in the state with communities from Houlton to Biddeford extending the season by hosting winter farmers markets.
And not even the nastiest of Maine winter weather can keep the diehard market fans away.
“You wouldn’t believe how many of our winter customers will come out in a snow storm to buy local food,” Jess Dowling, market farmer and coordinator of the Orono Farmers Market membership committee, said. “They drive in foul weather. I’ve even seen people from Houlton come down for the market.”
The Orono Farmers Market has been a fixture in this college town for around two decades from spring to fall.
Several years ago, according to Dowling, who operates Fuzzy Udder Creamery in Whitefield, the group decided to extend the season through winter.
In the summer months, the market sets up at the steam plant parking lot on the University of Maine campus. Come winter, it moves to a parking lot on Park Street in downtown Orono.
“We are one of the few outdoor winter markets,” Dowling said. “But people bundle up and follow us when we move.”
That year-round continuity is crucial to Maine’s small farm industry, according to Hanne Tierney, Maine Federation of Farmers Markets board director.
“Farmers markets provide a large percentage of the food for many Mainers,” Tierney said. “Obviously people eat year-round and to make the local food available at a [winter] farmers market is a great way to get that food directly to the consumer and it just makes sense.”
There are 35 winter markets listed on the Maine Federation of Farmers Markets website [ www.mainefarmersmarkets.org]. They span all counties except Lincoln.
“Before the winter markets many of us felt there was this huge gap when the seasons changed,” Tierne said. “Then about a decade ago a few farmers made the move and made winter markets happen.”
Farmers markets in Maine are run and operated by the farmers who participate in the markets, she said.
Year-round access to fresh food
Winter markets offer access to fresh dairy products like cheeses, yogurts and milk. Meat lovers can find locally raised beef, pork and chicken along with root crops harvested this past fall and placed in winter storage like carrots, beets or potatoes. Thanks to farmers using hoop house technology, winter markets are green with vegetables like lettuce, spinach, kale, pea shoots and bean sprouts.
Belfast resident Anne Saggese can’t imagine a week anytime in the year when she would not have access to her beloved Belfast Farmers Market, now in its sixth year.
“Our farmers have stuff all year round,” Saggese said. “Meat and dairy is always good, and the ‘veggie’ guys have really upped their games with hoop houses and storage crops.”
Hoop house, or high tunnels, are temporary structures made from metal poles covered with heavy greenhouse plastic. The structures act as a greenhouse and are heated by the sun, allowing gardeners and farmers to grow crops most of the year.
“We are seeing greens like lettuce mix, spinach and sprouts all year now,” Saggese said. “It’s just such a healthier option for food [because] this produce is super fresh and you are getting more nutrient power per bite.”
At the same time, Saggese said shopping at farmers market supports local agriculture and small farms.
“These farmers are making a living and the longer they can sell, the better it is for them,” she said.
The social aspect
The Belfast Winter Farmers Market is held in the greenhouse at Aubuchon Hardware on Route 1, and for many it’s as much about socializing as it is about shopping from the more than 20 vendors.
“It’s super social,” Saggese said. “It’s really warm in the greenhouse and people come in and hang out all morning long.”
Those interactions among farmer and consumer are crucial, according to Tierney, who said it’s more than just buying food, it’s having a relationship with the people who produce it.
“The connections between the people who produce the food and the people who buy it are so important,” she said. “Consumers can talk to the people growing the food and maintain that relationship all year [and] when there is that connection the consumer knows the story behind the food and has a better idea of the quality of the food they are feeding their family.”
Despite the seasonal differences between summer and winter produce, Tierney said there is still a great deal of variety available at winter markets.
“The prominence of some vegetables might appear different,” she said. “While bakers can bake just as much in the winter as they do in the summer, farmers who raise vegetables in hoop houses are working with less space than in the summer — going from raising crops on several acres in the summer to square feet in the winter.”
But those farmers who have embraced hoop house technology are changing the face of winter markets in Maine, Tierney said.
“They have really learned how to extend the season,” she said. “I would love for people to know how diverse and plentiful these markets are and how fresh and wonderful the produce is.”