SCARBOROUGH — Joe Viscano is hoping a few thousand lettuce seeds will go a long way toward supporting local agriculture.
The owner of Highland Avenue Greenhouse and Farm Market has filled one of his greenhouses – usually empty this time of year – with trays of 30 varieties of winter greens, all bound for local restaurants. In another greenhouse he’s started a winter farmers market. It opened Nov. 4 with six vendors selling beef, goat cheese and milk, preserves and crafts.
Viscano, whose grandfather Gene Gutter opened the garden center in 1949, said he has dreamed of trying his hand at growing baby greens for years and finally decided to take the plunge this year. But he needed more than greens to draw people into a store that would otherwise be closed for the season. With plenty of empty greenhouse space in the winter and a desire to support other local farmers, he decided to host a Sunday morning market.
“A winter farmers market is a good way to get different products and vendors in here,” he said. “We have to stick together in this economy and this makes people aware of local agriculture and buying local.”
The greens Viscano planted a month ago were ready to harvest just in time for the first farmers market on Sunday. The weekly market is open from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. through April.
In addition to greens – kale, swiss chard, red fire lettuce, pac choi and tatsoi, to name a few – Viscano is growing beets and garlic. He also plans to grow edible flowers.
“It’s kind of a science project,” he said, brushing his hands across the tops of the greens to strengthen the plants. “It seemed like there was a demand for something like this.”
Viscano plans to sell the organic greens in his store, at the farmers market and to local restaurants. He has at least one local chef lined up to come out to the greenhouse to check out the crop and hopes more customers will follow.
The greens are already being used by his own chef, John Profenno, who makes sandwiches and soups to sell at the greenhouse’s farm store. On Friday, Profenno layered purple mizuna on sandwiches and said he uses spinach and kale in his soups.
“It’s a chef’s dream,” he said of harvesting greens from a greenhouse behind his kitchen.
Viscano said he likes the idea of providing fresh greens to local people during the long winter months.
“People eating the food you grew, that’s just awesome,” he said.
As excited as Viscano was about his new harvest, he recognized that alone may not be enough to bring customers to the store through the winter. So he and his wife, Christine, set out to start a farmers market. They charge vendors $50 for the season.
“We have all this space and it sits empty all winter,” Christine Viscano said. “People seem really excited about it. They are really glad this won’t look like a deserted space.”
Lisa McLead of Tourmaline Farm in Greenwood said she welcomes a new winter market in Greater Portland. She already sells her goat cheese, raw milk and meat at the Saturday market at the Italian Heritage Center in Portland and said there is a strong desire in the area for locally grown and produced food. Selling her products throughout the winter enables her to continue farming, she said.
“Having a market in the winter allows me to keep my livestock,” she said. “It’s a necessity.”
Christine Viscano said one of the most significant aspects of the new business is the jobs it supports. Because the farm store is open year-round and has added prepared food, the Viscanos were able to avoid laying off several year-round employees. They also support the local fishing industry by selling lobster caught off Cape Elizabeth by Ernie and Sam Tweedie.
Joe Viscano said he is confident there is a strong demand for a winter farmers market, even with other markets established in Portland and South Portland. He has room for as many as 10 more vendors.
“We’re psyched to get started,” he said.
Staff Writer Gillian Graham can be contacted at 791-6315 or at: