September 22, 2010

Soup to Nuts: At Deering Oaks farmers' market, it's a mob scene

The market is a huge success, and that's great. Now it's time to deal with the side effects – jostling crowds, a shortage of parking and ill-mannered patrons.

By Meredith Goad mgoad@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Hey lady!

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Katie Morin of South Portland gets help from her children, Abie, 5, and Ben, 3, during a recent visit to the farmers’ market in Portland’s Deering Oaks.

Photos by Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

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Zucchini of varied shapes, sizes and hues paint a pretty picture at Fishbowl Farm’s stand at the Deering Oaks market.

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MARKET MANNERS

WHILE WE WAIT for the wheels of government to turn, and for sleepy farmers to wake up to potential profit, here's a little "farmers' market etiquette" to make everyone's shopping experience more pleasant:

• If you stop to talk with a friend, be considerate of other shoppers and move out of the flow of foot traffic.

• If you're a street performer or an artist trying to sell your work, give the farmers a little more breathing room. Better yet, set up an "artist's area" in the park where people can view your work without causing a veggie traffic jam.

• Both customers and farmers wish that some people (you know who you are) would stop handling and squeezing the produce so much. "The worst version of that is when parents either don't tell their children not to handle, or they tell them but they clearly don't mean it because they say, 'Don't touch it. Don't touch it. Don't touch it,' " farmer Mark Heidmann said. "All the time the kid is touching it, and the parent never does anything." Well, maybe that's not exactly the worst thing that can happen. "I had somebody actually take a bite of an ear of corn once and put it back, and we found it later," market manager Daniel Price said.

• Don't throw tomatoes roughly back into the box.

• Don't let Fido jump on the tables or, God forbid, pee on the McIntoshes. (Yes, that has actually happened.)

• Don't let your child climb on the tables or, God forbid, pee on the apples. (Just kidding.)

• A farmers' market is not a garage sale. Don't show up for a 7 a.m. market at 6:30 a.m. and expect the farmer to wait on you immediately. Be patient. They may be happy to help you, but they also need to get their stall set up.

• If you think a farmer's prices are too high, don't make rude comments and walk away abruptly.

– Meredith Goad

 

Yeah, you in the J.Crew outfit, blocking the farmers' market foot traffic flow with your $1,000 stroller and/or dog the size of Marmaduke.

I'm talkin' to you.

I don't care if you haven't seen your BFF in a whole week. I really don't want to hear you yammer on about how junior just had his first real poop. Take it elsewhere. It's a big park, so find a tree to stand under and let the rest of us shop for vegetables in peace.

And you – you musicians and jugglers and people with streams of fire swirling around your bodies. Keep your belly buttons and bare feet at least 5 feet away from the salad greens, please. You tend to draw crowds, which can make walking from stall to stall – you know, actually buying food from local farmers – feel like a trip down Bourbon Street.

And no, earnest politico, I don't want to sign your petition demanding that Maine declare medical marijuana a vegetable.

So have you been to the farmers' market lately?

I'm talking about the Saturday market at Deering Oaks, the one that has become so successful (yay!) it's now become a little stressful (boo!) to squeeze through the throngs of humanity, dodging the long lines and the illegal bakers and the lookie-loos – the people who are there only to socialize and excessively fondle the produce without spending a dime.

It's time that people start observing some "farmers' market etiquette" (more on that later), and time that the city and the farmers start thinking a little more seriously about the future of the Deering Oaks market so that it doesn't become a victim of its own success.

If the Saturday market keeps growing as it has been the past few years, it's going to need more space, more parking or longer hours to deal with the crowds. Maybe, at some point in the future, the market will need a new location altogether.

The city says it's up to the farmers to bring these issues to the table. But the farmers are so tired from working 14 to 16 hours a day that it's hard for them to reach a consensus about anything, much less about what's going to be good for the market or the city over the long term.

No matter how many times the ball gets bounced back and forth, these issues aren't going to go away, because the demand for local food just keeps getting stronger. The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced last month that the number of farmers' markets in the country has grown by 16 percent just since 2009.

Sales at the Portland Saturday market, which added eight new vendors this year, "have been better than ever," said Daniel Price of Freedom Farm, the market manager who acts as a liaison with the city of Portland.

Maine farmers are selling less food to restaurants and wholesalers every year, he said, and more food directly to consumers, which is better for their bottom line. "I haven't worked off the farm for money in four or five years," Price said.

There are more vendors who would like a slice of the pie – there's a waiting list of 24 for the Saturday market – but with limited parking, and limited space for new stalls, it's hard to see where there is room for the market to grow.

"We're lacking pretty seriously in meat and dairy and things like that," Price said, "so it would be nice to get more of those kinds of folks in."

ROUND AND ROUND

The lack of parking is a serious issue for 75-year-old Olga Bishop of Freeport, who could go to the Brunswick market but likes the one in Portland better.

"I would go every week if it wasn't for the parking," she said. "You have to go round and round and round before you find a place. I can't walk a half a mile even or a mile to park somewhere else, because I'm 75 and I have problems with my legs."

The farmers at the Deering Oaks market, which is open from 7 a.m. to noon, have reached consensus on one thing: they apparently aren't interested in staying open any later, a move that could help spread customers out a little more and perhaps bring them many more new customers. People who can't get there by 7, for example, because they have families to take care of before they head out shopping, or are dead tired after a long work week. It's less crowded at 7 a.m. for a reason.

Other people may have appointments or soccer practice in the morning, but could make it there by noon or 1 p.m.

Some farmers say that, for them, extending the hours would add to an already very long day.

"I don't think there's another farmers' market in the state that opens at 7," Price said. "I come from Freedom, so I get up at 2:30 in the morning and load my truck and get down to Portland usually around 5."

Mark Heidmann of Maple Springs Farm in Harrison said he gets up at 3 a.m. to make it to the market on time.

"It would make sense to see if we could find some way of measuring how much demand or interest there is for a longer day," Heidmann said. "Absent that, I wouldn't probably support a proposal to just extend it unilaterally."

Heidmann also attends the Wednesday market in Monument Square, which stays open until 2 p.m. The last hour of that market is not very busy, he said. Most people come out from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. to shop, but then have to go back to work.

"It would seem to me to be worth exploring whether we haven't got the longer hours backwards," Heidmann said, "whether on Saturday it wouldn't be better to go until 2 rather than Wednesday."

Price said that lately, the market has been staying open a little longer anyway unofficially, as vendors hang around to take care of a growing number of customers. So why not just start the market a little later in the morning, and officially end it a little later in the afternoon?

Even if the farmers agreed, it would require an ordinance change.

MOVEABLE FEAST

Heidmann said he is open to the possibility of moving the market altogether if the city could build some kind of simple timber-frame structure with a roof in a part of town where the market could have a long-term future (without the overhead of the former Portland Public Market).

Victoria Rosenthal, a Portland resident, would like to see the market move to the Old Port.

"I think it could be a wonderful thing," she said. "I think the Old Port needs something that's a bit more authentic. With the wharfs disappearing and endless boutiques everywhere, it would be a lovely gesture toward what Maine used to be."

Price thinks the market needs to grow into other parts of Deering Oaks, and that parking needs to be expanded wherever the city can find it.

"The perfect world, in my mind, is the city would recognize how valuable the farmers' market is," he said, "and they would say, 'We need to figure out how we can create better parking here, because the farmers' market is huge, and it's getting bigger.' "

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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The steady stream of customers at the farmers’ market at Deering Oaks in Portland, great news for the growers, is raising concerns about overcrowding and a shortage of parking.

  


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