In the summer of 2013, Mary Ellen Chadd and her husband, Austin, developed an enviable reputation after showing up at the Portland Farmers’ Market with the first soil-grown cherry tomatoes of the season. It was July 5, a day when many home gardeners were likely to be eyeing spindly plants and cursing June rains. The next week Green Spark Farm turned up with red heirlooms. “We got a lot of attention,” Mary Ellen Chadd said.

How did they do it so early? The more humid, slightly more temperate climate of Cape Elizabeth gave them the edge. They’d done some studying and thought their seedlings could hack an April planting. “We said, ‘Let’s plant a week earlier than we know other people do and see what happens,'” Chadd said. They put over 2,000 plants in the ground. “So it was a big risk,” she added.

Why take that risk?

Because at farmers markets, that gentle place of good will and fresh vegetables, it pays – literally – to be first. A farmer can develop a competitive edge by bringing a desirable crop to market before others, to stack the first sweet local strawberries or spring peas or juicy summer tomatoes on that fold-up table before anyone else does. And as Maine’s farmers become more innovative, using new techniques – many developed by Eliot Coleman, Maine’s most famously creative farmer – the race to be first is heating up.

THE RACE IS ON

Clara Coleman, one of Eliot Coleman’s daughters, is a Portland-based consultant on seasonal extension. She helps farmers make that magic happen, whether it’s early, late or midwinter crops they want to produce. She learned firsthand what it meant to be first in the market when she farmed in Colorado from 2009 to 2012. The concept of a four-season farm like her father’s in Harborside was virtually unheard of there. “I was an anomaly in Colorado,” Coleman said. She used the higher altitude and increased sun to combat weather extremes, and jump-started her new farm, quickly producing vegetables no one else had at any given season. “That served me well,” Coleman remembered. “As long as I could be first to market with a lot of desirable crops, I was able to be recognized – ‘that is the farmer who has the really good crops.'”

Even when other farmers eventually showed up with X, Y or Z too, she could thrive without lowering her price. The profit margins are already so slim for farmers.

“What I found was that because I developed this cachet, there was this bond with my customers early on,” Coleman said. “If they knew they could get a consistent and reliable product, that meant far more to them then a dollar,” Coleman said.

“It’s like any product out there,” she added, “iPhones, whatever. If they know what to expect, people are going to go for it no matter what the price difference is.”

SAD SPRING

They say April is the cruelest month (or T.S. Eliot did), but for Leigh Hallett, the executive director of the Maine Federation of Farmers’ Markets, March was a lot crueler. For local produce, she was down to cabbage – carrots at her Bangor market ran out in February. So off she went to the supermarket. Where she bumped into farmers Stew Smith and his wife Sarah Redfield of Lakeside Farms. “We were all wandering around the produce aisle,” she said. “It was just sad.”

The produce aisle might feel sad in spring, but the first outdoor farmers markets of the season are not exactly bountiful. Customers eager for full-blown summer crops are one of the reasons that during planning meetings over the winter Hallett regularly heard discussion of getting crops to market faster.

“The next month turns into mostly seedlings and stuff,” said Frank Giglio, who lives outside of Belfast and is a regular shopper at the local farmers market. He has a small seasonal farm of his own where he gives cooking classes, so he needs a variety of foods. “It’s onions and spinach and potatoes and then around June, it finally takes off.”

The picture is brighter in Portland, mainly because Scott Howard of Olivia’s Garden in New Gloucester has planned ahead for months to bring hydroponically grown tomatoes to market in time for the first the open-air markets at Deering and Monument Square. “It is kind of how we set ourselves apart,” Howard said. “It is easier to sell tomatoes when you are the only one that has them.”

He’s been doing that with the tomatoes for seven years now – he’s got a jump on the Chadds with his hydroponics – and in the last couple of years, he has added a new early crop, baby European cucumbers. Parents line up clutching the cucumbers, ministering to the needs of picky eaters at home, the children who consider the only good vegetable a cucumber.

“Sixty to 70 percent of the market share is for kids,” Howard said. While parents are scooping up the cucumbers, it follows that they’ll add lettuces and tomatoes to their bag.

Psychology is at play every time we walk into a department store (think about the way everyone has to walk through the men’s department to get to the women’s clothing on the grounds that men aren’t willing to travel further into a store to look for what they want, but women are). It’s only natural it happens at farmers market, as well.

JUMPING THROUGH HOOPS

Coleman said some of her clients are deeper-pocketed sorts who are aiming to reproduce the kind of setup her father has at Four Season Farm, gentlemen and women farmers who want to feed themselves. But she also wants to reach Mainers who might not be able to afford a consultant so she and Maine Farmland Trust have partnered to find grants to help educate farmers in ways to extend their production seasonally. “Everyone is really hungry for this information,” Coleman said.

There are limitations, though. Maybe they don’t have the capital to build a greenhouse or fund high tunnels, which protect crops from wind, pests and diseases and can be heated and (ideally) moved, to give the soil a chance to recuperate. Other lower-tech equipment to extend a season include unheated (or cool) high tunnels, which can be used to over-winter carrots or spinach, for example, yielding vegetables that taste like a whole different animal, so to speak.

But some parts of Maine are just too cold for those. Mark Guzzi farms in Central Maine at Peacemeal Farm in Dixmont. He said he supposes he could speed up his asparagus, a highly desirable local crop, by dropping a hoop house over the ground planted with the perennial. But then if the asparagus comes early, and there’s a late frost, he’d be in trouble. “It is quite a sad sight to see a field full of frozen spears,” he said.

A farmer also might not be ready to scale up. And they might not want to tend spinach in March, when they’d rather be in Florida. “The idea of trying to do this year round is intimidating,” Coleman said. “Where do you get your time off as a farmer?”

Her argument to them is that they should farm “smarter, not harder.” This would include “focusing on the things that you know are going to make money.”

HARD FIRSTS

A new money-maker in Maine is over-wintered spinach, which is planted in the fall and kept insulated in a cool tunnel throughout the winter, in what Coleman calls “a perpetual harvest state.” The plants grow very slowly, and with that, they get sweeter. This method produces what Coleman called “candy carrots” in her childhood and leafy greens, including over-wintered spinach, which is what the fashion world would call “fashion forward” in Maine right now.

“This time last year I remember one farm having over-wintered spinach,” said Frank Giglio, the chef who shops at the Belfast market. “This year, it seems like everybody has caught on.” He’s been developing recipes for the stuff, which has a silky yet sturdy texture, and publishing them on his website, threelilyfarm.com. Six River Farm in Bowdoinham has made over-wintered spinach “a mainstay,” farmer Nate Drummond said. Its quality sends shoppers into rhapsodies and has earned the farm a reputation around the state. But it doesn’t come at the neglect of say, early broccoli or tomatoes. The farmer who sells at market is “incentivized a little bit to have things earlier,” but also longer, he said. A CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) farmer might stick more closely to traditional growing and harvesting times, but the farmers who sell at market need to present more options to make the customer’s experience “more akin to shopping at the supermarket,” Drummond said. “You benefit from having as much as possible available.”

Pushing or extending the harvest doesn’t work for everything that grows in Maine. Some of what Coleman refers to as the “idolized crops,” that is, the crops that make even a profoundly committed meat eater go weak in the knees, like summer corn, are resistant to coaxing, or financially speaking not worth it.

Corn “is such a large plant and takes up so much space to grow,” Coleman said. Starting it inside a greenhouse can give a farmer the jump. Maybe you shave a couple weeks off the normal harvest time. But on a small scale farm, it’s not going to be worth it, she said. Pineland Farms Produce, which some still know as Gillespie Farms in New Gloucester, is often first with sweet corn. It takes trickery. Of the 25 acres of corn Pineland plants, about 15 percent is planted in 6 inch troughs in the ground covered with clear plastic. It acts as a temporary greenhouse. “Sometimes it buys you a week, sometimes two,” farmer Justin Gray said.

Strawberries can be a challenge too. “It’s not easy to get strawberries any sooner than Mother Nature will allow you to,” said Caitlin Jordan of Alewive’s Brook Farm in Cape Elizabeth. At Alewive’s, they pile straw on the plants before winter to help insulate them. In the spring, “you rake it back,” Jordan said. “And then you just hope.”

With strawberries, it’s easier to approach seasonal extension by pushing in the other direction, planting multiple varieties, including the ever-bearing plants that grow until the first frost and can yield into October, she said. Cape Elizabeth’s slight projection out into the Gulf of Maine means dodging early frosts that hit inland.

Jordan can sometimes, if conditions are right, grow lettuce in the ground “well into December.” Even before it became trendy to plop hoop houses over one’s crops, her family (she’s one of the many Jordans of Cape Elizabeth) managed to bring in late enough crops to disrupt Thanksgiving. “”I remember having to have Thanksgiving dinner in the afternoon and then going out to harvest afterward,” Jordan said.

WHAT IS NATURAL?

At board meetings of the Maine Federation of Farmers’ Markets over the course of the winter, Hallett said the debate about pushing crops to yield earlier went like this: “Do you want to be first, which can have benefits for you because no one else has it? Or do you want to be the person who comes in later with the product and has a better product?”

Coleman believes that one can be both first and best, with the right growing conditions. But not all farmers are jumping on the hay wagon.

Guzzi, of Peacemeal Farm in Dixmont, avoids what he calls “heroic measures” to be first.

“Clearly there is, or can be, a tremendous benefit to being the first to have an early crop of something,” Guzzi said. Guzzi is known for his peas, for instance, but doesn’t rush to have them any earlier than the Fourth of July to meet the demand for the traditional holiday meal – fresh peas, new potatoes and salmon.

Typically he plants his peas by April 30; this year it will be on the late side because of the chilly spring. He’s using organic seed for one thing, and a seed that’s not treated with a fungicide is more likely to rot in cold wet earth. But the wait is OK with him. “Sometimes the rush to be earliest to the market is not really doing anyone any favors,” he said.

How so?

“It is a very rare early pea that actually tastes good,” Guzzi said. “Does that matter to the customer that hasn’t had fresh peas for a year? Maybe not.” Taste matters to him, though. He is baffled by the customers who pounce on early winter squash, which he deems “inedible…yet there is a demand for it.”

Moreover, if he has early peas, “it is kind of a pain in the butt,” Guzzi said. “Because once pea season begins, they take a lot of time to pick and it becomes hard to do some of the other things we need to be doing.” That might include weeding early crops or planting later ones into the ground.

Coleman gets that. You have to pick your nurturing, just as you pick your battles. “If you want to be first on tomatoes, you don’t want the ground to be full of peas,” she said.

It’s a balance. Involving harmony.

“It’s like you are this conductor of this orchestra,” Coleman said. “And you are trying to get all the players involved. And sometimes, the violins are the only ones playing.”