March 11, 2010

Reinventing the FARMERS MARKET

— ROCKPORT — When the organizers of Farmers Fare on the corner of Route 90 and Cross Street thought about what kind of groundbreaking ceremony they wanted, the first thing that popped into their heads was that ubiquitous -- and boring -- photo where everyone's wearing a hard hat and holding a shovel.

Yawn.

They decided to hold a community event instead where folks could carve pumpkins, crush apples and enjoy a late-autumn bonfire.

''So we called it 'Carve, Crush and Burn,' '' recalled Kerry Hardy, the director of operations. ''That was an event that sounded a lot more fun than a groundbreaking.''

That's the way things roll at Farmers Fare, a new market, cafe and all-around community gathering place expected to open in September. The people behind the project want to promote what they call ''wrong thinking.''

Farmers Fare is similar to more traditional farmers' markets in that there will definitely be a focus on food: The produce, dairy and other products sold in the market and cafe will be supplied by local farmers.

There will be a commercial kitchen, an on-site butcher, an heirloom fruit orchard and two acres of demonstration gardens. Edible native plants will cover the entire 5-acre site, which was once part of the Erickson farm.

But Farmers Fare is also about building connections with neighbors through traditional activities from bonfires to block parties. There will be a playground, tables with chess and checker sets, and a walking path around the quarter-mile perimeter for moms with strollers. Children will be allowed to help out in the gardens.

John Bielenberg, creative director for the project, said when he first heard about Farmers Fare, he thought it was just going to be another market.

But after a few brainstorming sessions with the near-dozen other organizers, he realized the idea was to transform the traditional farmers market the way Cirque du Soleil reinvented and re-energized the traditional circus.

''The big lightbulb was, we're not in the food business, we're in the joy business,'' he said.

Farmers Fare is the brainchild of Teri Thompson-Christie of Camden, who holds organizational meetings in the 19th-century Camden home she shares with her husband Peter. Thompson-Christie formerly worked in fashion and lived in Milan for five years. She has also been a social worker.

Brainstorming happens in her formal dining room, where a giant homemade calendar covered in colorful sticky-notes -- reminders of deadlines and of things that still need to get done -- fills an entire wall.

The Christies are financing the project themselves, though they won't discuss exactly how much money they're putting into it.

In addition to Kerry Hardy and John Bielenberg, they've hired well-known locals such as Sarah Greer, who is communicating with as many as 250 regional farmers in her position as director of vendor relations, and Brad Purdy, a chef who ran a popular bakery in Camden.

Nancy Harmon Jenkins, a nationally-known food writer, is a consultant on the project, as is an expert from Fedco, a seed and tree supply company.

Terri Thompson-Christie said she thinks there's too much negativity in American culture today. She wants to find ways to help people find happiness again, and the comfort of lost traditions that were once found at general stores and grange halls.

Yes, it sounds a little naive, but this is a group where words like ''magical'' are sprinkled liberally into conversations.

''I want this place to serve the people of Maine,'' Thompson-Christie said. ''I want it to provide a place for people to go, especially kids.''

Everyone who sits around the dining room table is ''kind of quirky'' and not afraid to say whatever pops into their head, said Peter Christie, a former commercial fisherman.

That kind of comfort zone fuels creativity, ''and pretty soon, you've turned this silly little wrong idea into something really neat.''

Examples? Even the decision to drill a well on the property ''was based on something goofy,'' Hardy said.

Hardy knew it would be nice to have well water for irrigation of the gardens, ''but what I really wanted was to bring back a childhood memory of my uncle handing me a dirty carrot pulled right out of the garden and then going over to his well to pump water to wash off the carrot.''

''In terms of just being a crystalline memory,'' Hardy said, ''the way those wet carrots tasted is there for me, and I wanted kids to be able to do that at Farmers Fare.''

The large garden arbor at the main building designed by Rockport architect Eric Beckström will not be covered in roses, which have to be sprayed, pruned and fed. It will be draped instead with hardy kiwis, an edible fruit that was introduced into the United States as an ornamental in 1904.

''There's a plant that's been here a hundred years, but it came in the wrong door,'' Hardy said. ''It came in the ornamental door, and food people haven't really seized on it yet.''

Foodies will probably find much to like at Farmers Fare. A large, look-in produce cooler that will be installed just inside the door was inspired by the one at Portland restaurant Fore Street. There will be a special case for aging cheeses, and a deli section with a big space for custom-cut meats.

''Most of what we grow on the property, the idea is not to sell it,'' Hardy said. ''It's to let people taste it or let them see it and be inspired to do the same thing, or to teach kids that it's not scary to get the eggs out from under a chicken.''

Asparagus is harvested in early spring, but ''how many people know what asparagus looks like growing in a field in August?'' Greer said. ''We'll have it growing there for people to see.''

Visitors will be able to taste five varieties of wild plums that grow in Maine, and sample green gage plums transplanted from a forgotten orchard Hardy recently discovered in Rockland.

''It probably goes back to the 18th century, and they've been sputtering along with no care,'' Hardy said.

When local residents hear the descriptions, they think Farmers Fare will be like another Whole Foods Market. While the custom-cut meats are expected to cost a little more than at a regular supermarket, other foods will cost the same or less, organizers say.

The use of the barbecue pit will be free, and Thompson-Christie wants to offer lots of little ''surprises,'' such as ''pay-it-forward'' free ice cream. She also emphasizes that people can come there just to connect with other people without buying anything.

''We're very disciplined,'' Bielenberg said, '' that we don't slip into this more foodie elitist zone.''

That's why one of the slogans of Farmers Fare is ''Gathering people together to make joy.''

''And roast weenies.''

Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at:

mgoad@pressherald.com

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Additional Photos

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Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer... People involved with the Farmers Fare project in Rockport: from left, Kerry Hardy, director of operations, John Bielenberg, creative director, Teri Thompson-Christie and Peter Christie, founders, Eric Beckstr��m, architect, and Sarah Greer, director of vendor relations.

click image to enlarge

Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer... Kerry Hardy, director of operations for Farmers Fare, which plans on opening in Rockport this fall. Photographed at the Farmers fare site on Thursday, March 19, 2009.

click image to enlarge

Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer... Construction workers install trusses on a building that will be the center of Farmers Fare in Rockport, slated to open this fall. Photographed on Thursday, March 19, 2009.



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