PORTLAND — It’s early in the morning on a beautiful summer Monday. In preparation for the farmers market in Monument Square, an employee from Risbara’s Greenhouse sets up a tent near Congress Street.
She puts out begonias and purple impatiens. The yellow petals of her brown-eyed Susans sparkle under the pristine blue sky.
Once the tent is ready to go, there’s only one problem: no other farmers and no customers.
“It’s basically us and the hot-dog guy,” said Stefanie Bateman, one of the greenhouse’s employees.
“We couldn’t get into the Wednesday farmers market because of the long wait list,” said Claudia Risbara, who owns the greenhouse with her husband. “We thought something was better than nothing, so we signed up for Mondays.
“Unfortunately, we’ve basically made enough to pay back our license and that’s it.”
The city has three official farmers markets: in Monument Square on Mondays and Wednesdays, and in Deering Oaks on Saturdays.
But while Wednesdays and Saturdays are full – and have an unofficial 30-vendor wait list – Mondays generally only have one vendor who shows up.
Farmers on the wait list said they won’t come on Mondays because no customers attend. They can’t afford to take time from planting and harvesting to travel downtown and not sell anything. Likewise, customers won’t come on Mondays because no farmers attend.
It’s a self-defeating cycle, but a group of immigrant farmers will soon try to revive the Monday market. Dawud Ummah, president of the Center for African-American Heritage, is coordinating the effort.
Ummah said local farmers from Somalia, South Sudan, Burundi, Mali, Rwanda and the Congo have all expressed interest in selling their crops on Mondays. They would offer a mix of the traditional summer produce seen at Maine farmers markets along with a dose of their native foods, which they’ve begun growing here.
At a meeting with city officials last week, someone even suggested that the Monday market could also feature ethnic musical acts, which would add to the international flavor. Rachel Talbot Ross, the city’s director of equal opportunity and multicultural affairs, called it a “farmers market with a twist.”
When Ummah pitched the idea, city officials seemed receptive. It’s not yet clear if the city would market the event specifically as an international farmers market, or just a typical one.
Ummah said that if it’s successful, he’d also like to lure farmers from Asian countries and those with Hispanic backgrounds to the Monday market. Obviously, he said, native Maine farmers would be welcome, too.
“I think once it grows, it will attract a lot more farmers,” he said. “It’s a way to show off Portland’s diversity.”
Ummah said he expected a couple of international farmers – possibly of Somali or Sudanese descent – to begin setting up on Mondays as early as Sept. 5. Others need to buy tents and storage equipment and grow more crops.
“They haven’t started preparing to do this until now,” Ummah said.
Not everyone is as enthusiastic about a Monday farmers market. Daniel Price, coordinator of the Wednesday and Saturday markets, said he’d prefer to grow those markets rather than see the Monday market expand.
Right now, the Wednesday market has about 30 vendors and the Saturday market has about 35. Price said a larger Monday market could pull customers from those markets, ultimately hurting some farmers.
Instead, he’d like to add a few vendors each year to the Wednesday and Saturday markets – especially the Saturday sessions — and grow them into “true events.”
“Somewhat selfishly from my perspective, if you break up the week like that (with a Monday market), everyone doesn’t necessarily do better,” said Price, who co-owns Freedom Farm in the town of Freedom. “But if we build up the Saturday market, it grows, becomes more of an event and begins to attract more people from Portland and the surrounding communities. Everybody does better.”
Price said there’s room to expand at both of the markets he coordinates: on Wednesdays in the Monument Square Annex by Longfellow Books, which leads to Free Street; and on Saturdays, if the farmers reconfigure slightly, they can fit more tents. He conceded they have to figure out logistics, like finding more parking for Saturdays.
Ross said she loves the Saturday market and understands why farmers don’t want to take a risk and come on Mondays with few other vendors. But she also likes the idea of an international farmers market.
“It makes sense to me,” she said. “People are starting to describe us as an international city. It only makes sense our marketplaces reflect the different parts of our community.”
Staff Writer Jason Singer can be contacted at 791-6437 or at: [email protected]