In 2016, the Maine Federation of Farmers’ Markets received a a USDA Rural Business Development grant to to improve data collection at rural farmers’ markets, and to help them develop plans for growth. MFFM collected baseline data from shoppers, vendors, and market managers at approximately 35 farmers’ markets across Maine. The Calais, Norway, Presque Isle, Bucksport, and Belfast farmers’ markets were the focus of the project. These particular markets were chosen based on their potential for growth, their alignment with the grant requirements, and their geographic diversity.
The project’s primary goals were to:
- Collect and analyze data about Maine’s rural farmers’ market farmers/vendors, their relationships with neighboring businesses and communities, and their potential for growth.
- Develop and disseminate tools to foster the growth of rural farmers’ markets growth, supporting diversified farms and new businesses.
Vance Corum, of Farmers’ Markets America, spent most of August 2016 in Maine. Each report is divided into sections reflecting both community, vendor, and shopper feedback, and contains detailed suggestions to promote market growth and sustainability
Why Farmers’ Markets?
Nationally, Direct to Consumer (DTC) sales increased by 32% from 2002 to 2007, but plateaued between 2007-2012, according to the USDA (“Trends in U.S. Local and Regional Food Systems”). The same USDA study found that farms that have a component of DTC sales are more viable in the long term. Therefore farmers’ markets are vital to Maine’s rural economy as incubator spaces for agricultural businesses of many sorts, and are especially important to sustain farms. Approximately 13% of Maine’s farms rely on DTC sales. The state’s network of farmers’ markets has grown from 25 in 1991 to more than 115 summer markets in 2016, bolstered by dynamic farmers and eager consumers who often have limited grocery options in their rural communities.
Farmers’ markets are accessible to residents of most rural communities, and provide low-barrier, supportive environments for farmers, value-added food producers, and artisans (which usually means those who make artisanal foods, but can also mean those who craft with farm and other products) looking to start or grow businesses. Farmers’ markets offer excellent venues to farmers wishing to try new products on consumers and experiment with increasing their capacity. Maine’s food safety inspectors (through the Department of Agriculture, Conservation, and Forestry and the Department of Health and Human Services) are extremely supportive of beginning farmers and producers, making farmers’ markets even more accessible to those wishing to start new businesses.
Once the 5 focus markets had been selected, MFFM staff assembled demographic data, history and contextual background information, and contact lists for each community. Consultant Vance Corum arrived from WA in early August, 2016, and spent a few days in each focus community. While there, conducting interviews and surveys at each of the 5 farmers’ markets and surrounding communities. MFFM staff assisted in conducting in-depth shopper intercept surveys at each market. Vance interviewed local officials, business leaders, and others, as well as the market vendors themselves. Over the winter, Vance compiled detailed reports about each market, with including recommendations to help each market become more stable and experience growth.
Additionally, in August 2016, MFFM staff and volunteers conducted brief shopper intercept surveys at 35 farmers’ markets, collecting more than 2000 responses, and establishing baseline data for this project. This data provided a basis of comparison for the rural markets, to help determine areas for potential development. More detailed surveys were conducted at the focus market sites, collecting more nuanced data about shopper preferences, spending habits, etc…
Belfast – A “City on the Move,” Belfast has 4 organizations actively pursuing economic growth opportunities, with a shared vision of “economic vitality, local sustainability, and an enviable quality of life” for the town. Of the four organizations, the Belfast Creative Coalition in particular has focused on local food initiates. The Belfast Farmers’ Market is an important part of the city’s local food scene. It is well-established, with more than 15 vendors, and will be entering its 3rd year at the prominent Waterfall Arts location. Waldo County, home of agricultural organizations such as the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association and Maine Farmland Trust, has seen an increase in the number of farmers, particularly young farmers. The market currently lacks physical space to grow and considered adding a second market day in 2015. In 2017 a new public market opened in town, known as the United Farmers Market of Maine.
Bucksport – The Bucksport Bay Chamber of Commerce started the Bucksport Bay Farmers’ Market as a community project in 2013. Since that time, the Chamber has focused on ways to build symbiotic relationships between area farmers and other businesses, including cross-sponsorships. Developing the community’s agricultural sector is part of the Chamber’s current strategic plan. Bucksport is in the process of rebranding itself as “a beautiful village at the shores of the Penobscot River…. [offering] an enviable lifestyle, combining the intimacy and security of an earlier day with every modern convenience for today’s family, retiree, business owner, or entrepreneur.” The town is midway through a Community Heart and Soul project, a strategic planning process that aims to engage all community members in developing plans for a sustainable lifestyle in the town.
Calais – Washington County was part of a 2015 RBDG grant, with 70% of the participating farmers indicating that they rely on direct to consumer sales as their primary market. There are a number of organizations involved in food- and agriculture-related work in Washington County, including our current partners, Healthy Acadia (a Healthy Maine Partnership with which we have partnered on USDA Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive work for more than two years) and the Sunrise County Economic Development Council. Typical of other Washington County farmers’ markets, this market is fairly small, and often sells out of many products well before the market is over.
Presque Isle – Aroostook County has a robust agricultural history, but relatively few farmers’ markets. (The Presque Isle FM is the oldest existing market. There are markets that are 2-3 years old in Madawaska and Houlton, and a new market opening this year in Fort Fairfield.) The University of Maine at Presque Isle is developing a new concentration in sustainable agriculture, evidence of the interest in and commitment to the topic in the community. In the greater Presque Isle region there are currently 19,000 acres of unused farmland, 85% of which are classified as important or prime land (according to UM associate ecology professor Jason Johnston in a Nov. 28, 2016 Bangor Daily News article by Anthony Brino).
Norway – The town of Norway is another (like Calais) that benefits from tourists and summer visitors, providing some advantage to the farmers’ market there. The community is also notable for the number of nonprofits and civic organizations in the area, as well as the number of large businesses. The Norway Farmers’ Market is well-established (having just celebrated its 40th season) and draws on a robust and varied agricultural region. It was one of just two farmers’ markets in the state selected to participate in a major Farmers’ Market Capacity Building Project funded by the national foundation, Wholesome Wave. Norway is a Main Street Maine community, with Norway Downtown relying on an economic development plan utilizing a “comprehensive incremental approach that advocates a return to community self-reliance, local empowerment, and the rebuilding of downtown districts, based on their traditional assets: unique architecture, personal service, local ownership, and a sense of community.”
2016 Project Demographic Data:
|Town||County||Population||Unemployment Rate||Median Household Income||# of markets||# of Vendors at markets||County population density||Median Age|
Interested in learning more? Click here to see draft case studies related to this project.