September 29, 2010

Farmers' market revisited: Story touched lots of nerves

By Meredith Goad mgoad@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

I knew last week's Soup to Nuts column on the Saturday farmers' market at Deering Oaks would get a reaction, but I was unprepared for the empathetic outpouring from readers who agreed with me.

My e-mail and voice mail boxes quickly filled up with messages like this one from Jeff Wilson of South Portland: "FINALLY someone wrote about the Saturday Farmers' Market! Praise to you!! I agree with everything you wrote about!"

There were lots of exclamation points.

Frankly, I figured I would get mostly negative responses to a column that raises questions about whether the Saturday market should be expanded, or have longer hours to ease crowding issues and make shopping easier for consumers.

Not only did most readers agree, many people said they either don't go to the market as often as they used to or have stopped going altogether because they're tired of looking for parking, dealing with uncontrolled pets and negotiating around people who are socializing right next to the squash bin.

I learned an important lesson this week: consumers don't really have much of a voice in this situation, and they want one. They recognize how great our local farmers' market is, but they don't want it to be a sacred cow that never grows or changes.

Christine Sullivan of Portland calls the space issue "a problem begging for a solution."

"I am a serious vegetable shopper and I've given up on Saturdays because it just isn't practical to bike home with all the veggies I need," she wrote. "I try to make it to the Wednesday market, but it's much less convenient to leave work."

"Parking at the Saturday market has always been a bugaboo for me," wrote Nancy Martin of Cape Elizabeth in an e-mail. "I'd love extended hours."

Another reader suggested farmers come in morning and afternoon shifts so it would be easier to expand the hours.

PhyllisY wrote in the comments section online: "I love the FM, but it seems to be a place to be seen now, rather than a place to buy food."

"Gritty" said: "I usually go at 7 a.m. to avoid the posers, side-shows and the 'see & be seen-ers.' Last Saturday, I was running late all morning and didn't get there until 10 a.m. Definitely a good reminder to go early the place was packed and not enjoyable at all."

"THANK YOU! THANK YOU! THANK YOU!" read the e-mail from Beatrice Nyce of Saco, who describes herself and her husband as "strong supporters of the farmers' market."

Nyce related a couple of not-so-nice stories about uncontrolled dogs at the Saturday market. I'll just share one: "As we were about to purchase some vegetables, we witnessed a woman holding up her dog to smell the green peppers. The dog proceeded to lick the peppers, while the owner watched. She then put the peppers back in the box and did not purchase them. We put our vegetables back and left. On our way out, we saw a dog owner letting his dog urinate on a tree aside of produce."

Now, before this goes any further, let me get a few things straight: I love dogs, and I adore children. By all means, bring them to the market with you. And I love to socialize with friends at the farmers' market too.

It's just that there are these things called boundaries

Caitlin Hunter, owner of Appleton Creamery, doesn't come to the Portland market but is a vendor in six others around the state. She sent me a message on my Facebook page suggesting some more "farmers' market etiquette" for consumers:

Bring correct change when you can. "I get hit by $20 bills relentlessly, and I run out of ones no matter how many I bring."

Sampling protocols: One per customer, please. "We're not serving lunch here."

Hang up the cell phone. "I refuse to wait on anyone who is talking on the phone while shopping."

Don't let your dog pee on farmers' signs.

I also wrote a piece on prices, noting that you'll pay about the same at the farmers' market for most produce as you would at the local grocery. But there don't seem to be as many bargains as there used to be, and pricing can be confusing.

Jim Brown, a retired restaurateur from Edgecomb, wrote that a few weeks ago, he paid $6 for three tomatoes at a local farmers market. "I was too embarrassed to put them down and say no thank you," he wrote. "Never again. I think some farmers feel empowered now that the country is riding the tsunami of organic, free range, back-to-the-land produce. They are in the process now of killing the goose that laid the golden egg. What a shame!"

I did get a couple of responses from people who thought I was hurting the market by writing about these issues. The most thoughtful response came from David Wallace of Gorham, who said his entire family had read my column several times and had "a fairly lengthy family discussion about it."

Wallace took issue with my tone, saying that I seemed to emphasize the negative rather than the good that the market does. Anywhere the public tends to gather, he argues, "There will always be the inconsiderate people wearing blinders who haven't a clue the disruption they cause, there are always those whose greed will allow them to justify making the easiest buck at the least cost whether it breaks trust or not, but should we just give the baddies a bigger barrel?

"From our own experience, we always find the market to be a more upbeat experience than what your article described. We have seen the rude folks and choose to see through them. I cannot write off a Maine summer as being an unpleasant experience because we have some blackflies, ticks and mosquitoes nor would I want to start spraying! If parking and crowds do not fit our mood at the moment for a farmers' market Saturday, we change our timing and/or just suck it up and go with the flow."

Good advice, Mr. Wallace.

Finally, I want to thank everyone who helped me in my quest for basil. I am happy to report that my blender will be busy this week making lots of pesto.

Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at: mgoad@pressherald.com

 

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