Demand for year-round access to Maine food has translated into a growing number of winter farmers markets.
In southern Maine, two new winter markets opened this season in South Portland and Saco, bringing the number of them in the state to more than 20.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported last winter that 898 winter farmers markets were in operation around the country, representing a 17 percent increase from the previous year.
This mirrors the overall growth trend of farmers markets, which jumped 17 percent from 2010 to 2011.
The USDA reported in August that more than 1,000 new farmers markets opened across the country this year, bringing the total to 7,175.
“Probably the busiest market in the state right now is Brunswick, and Portland’s not far behind,” said Lauren Pignatello, who runs the Swallowtail Farm micro-dairy in Coopers Mills, and helped launch both the Brunswick and Portland winter markets.
The Brunswick Winter Market takes place in the Fort Andross mill, and features more than 56 vendors, with about a third consisting of artisan crafters. On average, about 1,000 shoppers show up each Saturday in Brunswick.
“This is the busiest month in Brunswick right now because of Christmas shopping,” Pignatello said.
Most winter markets in Maine feature a mix of farm products and craft items. The exception is Portland, where strict city regulations govern farmers markets and prohibit sales by non-farm vendors, including bakers and fishermen.
Even with a farm-only product mix, the Portland Winter Farmers Market, which opens for the season on Saturday, seems to be thriving.
“Last year, we had tremendous crowds, and I’m hoping with more vendors and more diversity this year, we’ll draw in even bigger crowds,” said Pignatello. “The shoppers in Portland are really committed to local food.”
Twenty-one farmers will sell their wares in Portland this winter, up from 15 last year. Pignatello said she has squeezed as many vendors as possible into the Irish Heritage Center.
“I’m hoping to find a bigger and more versatile space (for next year), like what we have in Brunswick,” Pignatello said. “I’m hoping to have a space where we could have 50 vendors.”
The Portland Winter Farmers Market will accept credit, debit and food stamp cards. The payment system started earlier this year at the summer farmers market, and proved popular with shoppers. In addition, at least two farmers selling beef and dairy products intend to continue showing up in Monument Square on Wednesdays throughout the winter.
Farmer Paul Lorrain of Sunset Farm Organics in Lyman participated in the short-lived winter market in Biddeford last year, which folded due to problems with the venue. Now he has helped start a new market across the river in Saco.
“It’s above expectations,” Lorrain said in regard to the customer traffic at the new market, located in the mill behind the Run of the Mill brew pub. The Saco market has been in operation for four weeks.
“I’m involved with the market in Brunswick, and used that as a model,” Lorrain said. “The goal is that people can come to the market and get all their groceries.”
The Saco market features 30 vendors offering vegetables, meats, dairy products, eggs, bread, prepared foods and crafts.
“We have a waiting list (of potential vendors),” Lorrain said. He estimated the market attracts between 200 and 300 shoppers each week, and praised mill owner Kevin Mattson, who renovated the space specifically for the market and charges a low rental fee.
“We’re already talking about blowing out one of the walls and expanding next year,” Lorrain said.
South Portland launched an outdoor farmers market for the first time this year. Located at Thomas Knight Park, the market got off to a strong start, but the number of shoppers dwindled as the summer season wore on.
Despite the lower-than-expected traffic at the summer market, the vendors decided to organize a winter market at the former Hamlin School, and have been happy with the number of shoppers in the five weeks it has been open.
“It seems to be some of the people who came week after week to the summer market, and there are a lot of new faces,” said Caitlin Jordan of Alewive’s Brook Farm in Cape Elizabeth. “Customers seem very pleased that they don’t have to go across the bridge.”
The South Portland market features 11 vendors, some of whom participated in the town’s summer market and others who sell their wares at the Scarborough Farmers Market.
Jordan said she and the other farmers are working to educate shoppers about the nuances of eating seasonally.
“A salad in winter means kale (rather than lettuce),” Jordan said. “We’re trying to get people to understand that you can eat locally year-round.”
Staff Writer Avery Yale Kamila can be contacted at 791-6297 or at: [email protected] Twitter: AveryYaleKamila