March 4, 2010

Prepared-food stands face roadblocks at farmers' market

— When life gives you bruised potatoes, make homefries. Or potato salad.

click image to enlarge

click image to enlarge

Photo by John Ewing/Staff Photographer...... Saturday, September 12, 2009...Simon Frost (left) of Thirty Acre Farm and Daniel Price (right) of Freedom Farm have the citly's first local food vendor cart at the Wednesday Farmers Market in Portland's Monument Square.

This is what Simon Frost of Thirty Acre Farm in Whitefield and Daniel Price of Freedom Farm in Freedom are doing with their unsold and B-grade potatoes. The two farmers sell vegetables, meats and fermented foods each week at the Portland Farmers' Market. A month ago, they launched the city's first local food street vendor venture, aptly named the Farmer's Cart.

You can find the cart each Wednesday during the farmers' market from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. in Monument Square, behind the Thirty Acre Farm stand.

''There's a lot of stuff we feel we can't sell at the farmers' market,'' Price said, referring to vegetables that are perfectly edible but not very pretty. ''It's what we eat in the house, and we sell it in the bargain bags.''

Now these vegetables, along with top-quality breads, meats, cheeses and fruits from other Maine farms, are finding their way into the Farmer's Cart's prepared foods.

Behind the cart's vast cooking surface is Chef Janii Laberge, who worked for 11 years at the now-closed Audubon Room at the Inn by the Sea in Cape Elizabeth.

The food cart's menu changes weekly, depending on what's coming off the farms. Last week, Laberge's breakfast lineup included sausage or veggie omelets served with homefries and homemade toast. Lunch brought organic hamburgers and cheeseburgers with tomatoes, onions and collard greens; organic pulled pork sandwiches with coleslaw; and grilled cheese sandwiches with sauerkraut.

For dessert, the cart offered organic blueberry pie, and apple pie is promised in the coming weeks.

Sandwiches generally sell for $9, and pies can be had for $20 each or $4 a slice. A dollar will get you a glass of organic iced mint tea.

Frost and Price, who are innovative marketers and the driving force behind Portland's fledgling winter farmers' market, don't expect to get rich selling sandwiches and omelets. They view the cart as another way to put their farm-fresh products into customers' hands and mouths.

''There are a ton of people who come through the market just for lunch,'' Price said. ''There are some days it's so busy out here, but there are some people not stopping to buy vegetables.''

Instead, these folks are looking for a meal.

Adding value to plain old vegetables is a major part of the business plan on Thirty Acre Farm, where Simon Frost and his wife, Jane Frost, are known for their fermented pickles and sauerkraut. Simon views the Farmer's Cart as another way to make their raw ingredients more attractive to customers.

''In Europe, farmers' markets have all this kind of stuff,'' Simon said. ''I'm surprised no one else has done it here. I think it's probably a result of the regulations.''

He'd be right about the regulatory roadblocks standing in the way of any farmer who'd like to do the same.

For starters, the city ordinance governing Portland's two farmers' markets allows farmers to sell nonperishable prepared food, as long as these sales account for no more than 49 percent of the farmstand's total revenue. Items such as omelets and cheese sandwiches are considered perishable and not allowed at the market.

As a result, the Farmer's Cart is licensed under the city's street vendor provisions.

''The goal is really to get out there this year and get people familiar with (the cart),'' Simon said. ''We'd like to see this market let us in as part of the market.''

For that to happen, the ordinance would need to be changed by the City Council, and that is a controversial proposition.

''We have a waiting list for farmers at both markets,'' said market coordinator Larry Bruns of Hanson Field Flower Farm. ''That's why I'm not pushing for farmers to do prepared foods. I'd like to save room for more farmers.''

Right now, there are 17 farms waiting for a spot at the Wednesday market and 19 farms waiting for a spot at the Saturday market. To help ease the demand, four additional spots for farmstands will be added next year at the Saturday market in Deering Oaks.

This space crunch points to one more complication standing in the way of any other entrepreneurial farmers who'd like to whip up a few sandwiches. The farmers' market ordinance designates Monument Square for the sole use of market vendors during Wednesdays from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. The Farmer's Cart has managed to squeak around these rules by placing the cart just behind the farmstands.

The Saturday market in Deering Oaks presents its own set of problems. As in Monument Square, only farmstands can fill the designated market area during market hours. In addition, street food vendors are prohibited from Portland parks unless they pay to rent a spot, which explains why the Farmer's Cart operates only in Monument Square.

Given the growing number of people who are lining up at the Farmer's Cart each week, it's clear there's a demand for farm-to-street-cart food. Whether or not we see any more farmers doing the same depends largely on their appetite for red tape.

Staff Writer Avery Yale Kamila can be contacted at 791-6297 or at:

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