She sells lobsters – that would be one way to describe what Sue Nelson does at the Crystal Spring Farmers Market in Brunswick. But mostly she’s answering questions: How many should I buy? Can I cook them on the grill? How long will they keep in the refrigerator? What’s the best way to freeze the meat?
“Anything people can think of I get thrown at me,” said Nelson, general manager for Potts Harbor Lobster in Harpswell.
She answers patiently and, on hot summer days, she doles out some commonsense advice: Don’t leave your lobsters in the car too long. (They do OK in coolers, but left in the sun, they’ll die.)
Nelson has been selling Casco Bay and Gulf of Maine lobsters at the Brunswick summer market every Saturday for four years. In that time, she’s discovered that she’s not only a saleswoman, but also a teacher. Each week, along with her lobster-packed Coleman coolers, she brings lobster traps and banding and measuring tools. She hangs up photos of Potts Harbor owner Jim Merryman hauling traps. The idea is to help customers understand how the lobsters are harvested.
“That seems to really resonate,” she said. “They want to know who’s catching their food.”
On the market’s opening day in early May, Nelson was selling lobsters (caught just one day earlier) for $6.99 per pound. At a nearby Hannaford’s, the going price was $9.99.
The connection – and the economic benefits – works both ways. On average, lobstermen can earn more selling at farmers markets than to wholesalers, Nelson says, though it’s hard to quantify as the price of lobster fluctuates. Beyond that, “The boys like knowing the lobster they worked hard to catch are going to people who appreciate them,” she said.
HIGHLY PERISHABLE PRODUCT
Yet making those connections isn’t easy for most of Maine’s fishermen.
The “vast majority” of the catch “still goes through dealers or the auction,” Amanda LaBelle, a sustainable food protégé for the Wilhelm & Karl Maybach Foundation, told an audience at a meeting of Slow Money Maine in Augusta earlier this spring. “In most cases, fish is like a commodity – undifferentiated and priced at the lowest (common) denominator.”
Only some 30 of the roughly 140 farmers markets in Maine offer seafood, a category that includes fish, lobster and products like fish cakes and seafood pies, according to Monique Coombs, a Harpswell-based seafood and fisheries consultant. And she suspects her estimate is high.
“It changes every year because people try it and don’t succeed,” she said. “It’s just not profitable to pay someone to go spend a day at the market, and there’s so much risk in bringing a highly perishable product to a market where you don’t know how much you’re going to sell.”
Ben Martens, executive director of the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association, agreed: “I know very few fishermen who try and sell to farmers markets.”
Lobsters may be a relatively sure bet and bring a good price, but lesser-known species can be a tougher sell. Adding to the challenge, few Maine farmers markets have bylaws governing the sale of fish, Coombs said. These are farmers markets, not fishers markets, after all. Small wonder, then, that the markets “don’t know how to ask someone for a dealer’s license,” she said. “They don’t know what temperature the seafood needs to be at. They don’t know that you shouldn’t display seafood at a table.”
WATCH THE OVERHEAD
The relatively small number of fishermen who do sell their catch at farmers markets have learned through trial and error.
“One year we did 16 farmers markets. And then we decided that was complete insanity,” said Glen Libby of the Port Clyde Fresh Catch fishermen’s cooperative. “There’s a couple we did pretty well at, and there was a lot of them where it was costing us more to do it than what we were getting out of it. If you start driving too far, you’ve got quite a lot of overhead before you even sell anything.”
(Interestingly, fishermen have to make that same choice – between fuel and potential profit – on the water.)
The Port Clyde fishermen scaled back to just three markets. The cooperative has the advantage of a processing facility, which allows the fishermen to freeze catch, if necessary, depending on the schedule of boats and markets. That’s why, he explained a few weeks ago, “The crabmeat will be fresh this week at the Brunswick market. The scallops came in on Monday so those are frozen.”
If the frozen fish doesn’t sell at a given market – maybe it’s raining and crowds are sparse – it can be held for another week.
Libby speaks from experience. He’s worked the farmers market table himself. And like Nelson, he had to field a lot of questions. Many shoppers, he discovered, have no clue how to cook the state’s lesser known groundfish, say monkfish, butterfish or redfish.
Just why retailers need to better educate consumers “on what it means to be buying local fish,” Martens said. “It’s not always going to be cod and haddock.”
And who is more open to discovery than the curious, eager throngs of farmers market shoppers who in the last decade have come to learn and love items like garlic scapes, duck eggs and pea tendrils? But before the education can happen, the markets may need to be a little more flexible, Coombs said. Many require vendors to pay annual table fees and attend every market. Such rules are meant to provide consistency for shoppers and chock-full tables for markets. But consistency is tough on fishermen. They’re at the mercy of bad weather, which can prevent them from even setting sail. Fishing seasons may not jibe with market seasons. Plus a fisherman never knows what he’ll catch.
“…when you plant your carrots, you know what’s going to come up,” Nelson said. “When you’re out there harvesting seafood, you have no idea.”
These are the reasons, Coombs said, “we need to think about how does seafood fit into the local food system in a way that’s appropriate for our industry and not just trying to fit into this agriculture model.”
Melissa Wood is a freelance writer in South Portland. Contact her at: