Dick Piper isn’t deterred when temperatures hover in the 20s and piles of snow surround Our Lady of Victories in Monument Square. No matter the weather, he parks his brown van in the statue’s shadow every Wednesday, ready to sell free-range meat.
The Wednesday edition of the Portland Farmers Market, which draws more than two dozen farmers downtown every week, officially ended in November, but Piper shows up throughout the winter to sell his meats, honey and prepared foods. It’s not a big money-maker. Piper, 72, says it’s mostly enjoyment that brings him out. He needs to get away from his Buckfield farm and socialize.
“I usually like to talk to cows and pigs,” Piper said with a laugh one Wednesday this month. “I guess I am a social guy. I used to be a project superintendent for a large earth-moving company. My job was trying to keep all the workers happy and also the public, the inspectors, the town fathers. So I guess I chatted all my life.”
On many Wednesdays, he has another farmer next to him to chat with. Jodie Jordan, 65, from Alewives Brook Farm in Cape Elizabeth, shows up in Monument Square “as long as it’s above freezing” and it’s not snowing or raining. He says he’s there for the majority of winter Wednesdays.
Jordan’s products mostly don’t overlap with Piper, and Jordan says they have a small but loyal winter clientele.
“Most people are glad we’re there,” Jordan said. “If they stop by, they buy a little bit of something. Apples, carrots, potatoes, cabbage or something.”
The Portland Farmers Market continues on Saturdays throughout the winter at an indoor location in the East Bayside neighborhood. But the Wednesday market ends in November, when most farmers are down to apples and root vegetables.
Piper’s meats and Jordan’s produce are available year-round. Though the two-man market doesn’t generate a lot of business – unlike the summer and fall, when the square is jammed with farmers and shoppers – there are other business opportunities in winter. Piper says he sometimes meets a local chef or store owner and makes a deal that pays dividends outside of the market.
“All it takes is one person in a business deal to make the whole winter worthwhile,” Piper said.
An outdoor farmers market used to be a typical scene in Portland. Ramona Snell helps run Snell Family Farm in Buxton and has been coming to the market since the 1980s. She usually goes to the Wednesday market with her daughter Carolyn, “but we go in the normal time,” she said with a chuckle.
Snell said Portland’s market used to run outdoors in the 1930s and primarily sold meat. A rabbi came down to the Federal Street location and blessed the chickens, and during World War II it was a source of butter and other items that were rationed, she said.
Carolyn Snell works as the marketing coordinator for the group that runs the market. Though the tiny Wednesday market makes for a quirky scene, Ramona Snell said, it makes sense for a few farmers to sit out in the cold Maine winter.
“I think it’s economically sound,” she said. “They’re looking for a revenue stream through the winter. If they can be there dependably, then people will respond to them. If you’re just going to be there hit-or-miss, then people don’t plan on getting things from you.”
Piper has not been hit-or-miss. He’s been sitting in Monument Square for about six years, he said. He’s there on Wednesdays unless it’s snowing, in which case he plows snow in the Buckfield area.
He’s still busy into his 70s because he likes to keep moving. Twenty years ago he quit his construction job. He and his wife sold their house on Higgins Beach in Scarborough and bought their ranch in Buckfield, where they raise cattle, pigs, lambs and goats. They’ve got a greenhouse out back and are adding another this winter. His wife has a commercial kitchen and makes prepared foods like meat pies.
They’re growing because Piper is bullish on local farming in Maine.
“A lot more people are starting to think like the Europeans,” Piper said. “They’re buying local and being healthier. I think it’s finally getting around to that.”
As he sees demand growing for local products, Piper said his Wednesdays at Monument Square might be getting busier in the winter.
“I’m surprised in a way it isn’t bigger. I think the day’s coming when it’s going to be bigger,” he said.
In the meantime, Piper will be there on Wednesdays until the rest of his farmers market buddies join him in April. Jordan will often join him – and get ready for an earful.
“He likes to talk to people, no question about that,” Jordan said.
It’s a lot about socializing and getting out of the house, Piper said. And of course he’ll be there in the winter, Piper says with a shrug. It beats his alternatives.
What else is a farmer going to do in winter?
“I can tell you one thing you can do: that’s the honey-do list,” Piper said, “but that costs you money.”
James Patrick can be contacted at 791-6382 or at: