Blue sky, a light breeze and the city’s mayor dressed as a watermelon greeted the hundreds of people who showed up last Thursday afternoon for the opening day of the South Portland Farmers Market.

Held in Thomas Knight Park on the South Portland waterfront, the market came to fruition after the City Council amended its zoning and licensing rules to allow the market more flexibility.

“This is something I tried to do in my first term on the council in 2003, and I think it was just premature,” said South Portland Mayor Rosemarie De Angelis. “When I was appointed as mayor, it was one of the things at the top of my list. Food is really central to the concept of community. I love going to the farmers market in Portland, but I said, ‘Why can’t we have this in our community?’

Judging by the throngs of customers and the fact that vendors were already selling out of items after an hour, it appears the South Portland market, which will be open from 3 to 7 p.m. Thursdays through October, has tapped into an unmet demand.

“We go to the Portland market on Saturday, but it’s so much easier to have one right here,” said Aleta Mustone of South Portland, who walked to the city’s first farmers market with her 5-month-old son, Sebastian.

Mustone wasn’t the only one who appreciated the accessibility of the market.

“Being able to walk to a market is fabulous,” said Jess McKneally of South Portland, who attended the market with her husband, Chris, and their Jack Russell terrier, Harold.

“I’m surprised there are so many prepared foods and grass-fed beef,” McKneally added.

With 13 vendors, the market offers vegetables, dairy products, a variety of meats, seafood, sauces and baked goods. The market has fewer vendors than Portland’s, but it won points from customers for a more diverse product selection than they find across the bridge.

Caitlin Jordan of Alewives Brook Farm coordinated the vendor sign-up.

“I want people to be able to come and buy everything to make a meal,” Jordan said.

In addition to supplying residents with convenient access to fresh, local foods, the market organizers hope to bring more people into the nearby shopping district populated by independent businesses.

“We want to energize that area as our South Portland downtown,” De Angelis said.

South Portland residents Linda Mehlhorn and Trudy Poulin shop regularly at the Portland Farmers Market. After shopping at the first South Portland market, they gave it a favorable review.

“We love the fact that it’s open past 2 p.m.,” Mehlhorn said, referring to the fact that Portland’s Saturday market ends at noon and the Wednesday market closes at 2 p.m.

“I find it’s reasonably priced, too,” Poulin said.

All the vendors were mobbed with customers on opening day, but the lines in front of Fresh Start Farms and Alewives Brook Farm were particularly long. These are the only two vendors selling fresh vegetables.

“We’re hoping they’ll have more vegetable (vendors) coming,” Mehlhorn said.

“We’re still accepting other vendors, depending on what they’re selling,” Jordan said. “I don’t think it makes sense to have 40 people selling the same thing. We have to balance growing the vendor base as the customer base grows.”

In addition to being within easy walking distance of a large swath of homes and businesses, the market can also be accessed by boat. The park includes a boat landing, where visitors can tie up for free for up to four hours.

In the future, the market organizers hope to offer instruction in food preparation and preservation.

Penny Jordan of Jordan’s Farm in Cape Elizabeth has agreed to help the fledgling market by organizing weekly demonstrations on topics such as canning, jam making, dehydrating, fermenting, flower arranging and pumpkin carving. Anyone who would like to offer a demonstration involving farm products should contact her at pennyjordan@jordansfarm. com.

De Angelis was pleased with the turnout at the market. She said this initiative fits with recent city moves to start a community garden and ban smoking in parks and on beaches.

De Angelis said her service on the council is “about how can I help make decisions that affect quality of life. That’s really my passion on the council.”

 

Staff Writer Avery Yale Kamila can be contacted at 791-6297 or at: akamila@pressherald.com

Follow her on Twitter at: Twitter.com/AveryYaleKamila