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BELFAST, Maine — Forty years ago, when the Belfast Farmers’ Market first started to connect farmers and producers with customers, the community around it was at an economic low ebb.
The chicken processing industry, which employed many and was a financial engine for the area, was on its way out. And rather than chicken feathers floating down High Street, you could spot “For Sale” signs on too many houses around town, according to John Barnstein, the owner of Maine-ly Poultry in Warren and a longtime vendor at the market, which takes place from 9 a.m. – 1 p.m. on Fridays at Waterfall Arts in Belfast.
“When we first started doing markets here, Belfast was a pretty depressed town,” he said, adding that he has witnessed the community change for the better. “It’s really nice to see the transition.”
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Barnstein and other stalwart members of the market have seen a lot over the years. That’s why they’re confident that the Belfast Farmers’ Market will be able to weather the pandemic, too — a reality that makes it challenging to mark the market’s big anniversary, Noami Brautigam of Dickey Hill Farm in Monroe, the market’s president, acknowledged on Friday. Market officials had been planning celebrations, but then the pandemic struck and put those plans on hold.
“It’s hard to follow through on those things right now, when the focus is more on staying safe,” she said. “The market’s looking forward to a time when celebrating as a community feels more responsible. We’ll take advantage of that time when it comes.”
Earlier this spring, officials at the market — one of the oldest in the state — developed strategies to stay open while still taking precautionary measures. They moved outdoors to the summer space next to Waterfall Arts earlier than usual, developed a list of safety protocols for vendors and requested customers to follow those protocols, too. The request seems to have been heeded — lots of customers and all the vendors wore face masks on Friday, and seemed to be keeping a distance from each other as they chatted over purchases of spring greens, seedlings, yogurt, bread, cheese, meat, fish, chicken, eggs and more.
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In previous years, though, the market has a festive feel, with strolling musicians, happy crowds and picnic tables where customers sit, talk and eat. That’s not the case right now, and people have noticed.
“It’s very different than before. It’s not as lively,” Liz Fitzsimmons of Belfast said. “I always think of the farmers’ market in a number of ways — especially as a place for people to gather. The community aspect — it doesn’t feel like it’s here, not at all in the same way.”
Still, even in its more subdued current state, the market matters to farmers and customers.
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“It’s very nice to have an alternative place to get fresh food,” Pam MacClintock of Monroe said.
And the farmers appreciate the customers, who show up regardless of the weather.
“It’s the customers that really make the market,” Marcia Ferry of Peacemeal Farm in Dixmont said, adding that despite the uncertainties of this year, she is optimistic. “At the farm, we’re still planting everything we had planned to plant. We’re hoping customers will continue coming to the market, and feeling like it’s a safe place to shop.”
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