WINDHAM – Lack of consumer demand, a glut of local farmers markets and poor location have caused Lakes Region Farmers’ Market officials to cease operations after five years in business.

The market, which, since 2007, had been open Saturday mornings from April to October in the parking lot between North Windham Union Church and Manchester Elementary School, occupied what was seemingly a good location, in the commercial heart of Windham. But a lack of signage, and a location that was out of view of passing Route 302 motorists, helped doom the market, which at one time boasted 15 vendors but was down to seven at the end of last season.

Those and other factors caused the group’s operating committee, which met for a final time last week over dinner at Saint Joseph’s College, to halt plans of reopening the market.

“We had an inability to keep vendors. We have vendors that are just jumping all around or vendors start and don’t realize how much work it is and they drop out,” market organizer Karen Harter said earlier this week. “Basically, people want a lot of vendors and vendors want a lot of people. So it’s just been this ugly cycle for, I would say, the last four years.”

Harter, a Baldwin resident and owner of Garden of Weedin’ landscaping company, ran the market for the past few years. She also blames the loss of customers and vendors on the proliferation of farmers markets in the area. There are markets in nearly every major town, and that is diluting the supply of customers and farmers, she said.

“People don’t want to travel, and these markets are showing up in all these towns and so it’s really dispersing all the farmers,” she said. “Casco’s market is struggling. They’re talking about one in Raymond. Bridgton’s has been around forever. Windham. The one in Gray closed. Poland is struggling. So that’s a lot of markets in that area.”

Some vendors also jumped ship when Portland recently expanded its farmers market, Harter said.

“And if you go to Portland, that’s where you’re going to make the money,” she said.

The overall economy hasn’t helped either. Harter said large grocery stores offer cheaper produce, and that has driven middle- and low-income folks away from farmers markets.

“It’s expensive compared to the regular store, albeit better, so that’s definitely another factor,” she said.

In the Lakes Region market’s case, another cause for closure is that no one stepped up when Harter expressed a desire to step down as director.

“My other business is doing so well, but I was spending almost all day Friday and Saturday doing the farmers market,” she said. “But I really need those two days [for the landscaping business], especially if we have a day of rain. So, that’s another issue I started coming up against last year, and unfortunately nobody else stepped up.”

The closure didn’t come for lack of trying. Last year, Harter and the committee spearheaded an effort to advertise and reach out to low-income shoppers. Working with state and local officials, Harter received authorization and donated equipment so vendors could process payments from clients receiving government assistance. While few food stamps users visited the market, Harter said, the WIC program, a federal supplemental nutrition program for women, infants and children that requires parents to buy fresh vegetables for their children, produced a decent return on investment.

“We did try, and we had a lot of help from PROP (People’s Regional Opportunity Program), but maybe it was a little too late,” Harter said.

One of the founding vendors, Cindy Cassidy, one of three Windham women who sold baked goods and vegetables at the market under the Penny Farthing Farm label, said she’s sad she won’t be returning for a sixth season.

“I think it’s really too bad, but I think it’s partly location,” she said. “People can’t see you from the road.”

In previous years, the market displayed roadside signs prior to Manchester School’s entrance road providing motorists an indication the market was coming up, Cassidy said. They were also displayed in the days prior to the market. The signs, however, violated town code. In recent years, however, the market was only allowed to have a sign displayed on a fence at the market’s two entrances on market day.

“We found the signs were the biggest draw, and when we tried signs it increased three times what we were getting before,” Cassidy said. “But if people don’t have an advanced warning, where it’s so congested in that particular area, it’s hard for them to turn so by the time they see the sign, they’re by it and they’re not going to bother turning around.”

In addition to the approved roadside signs, which were located at both entrances and partly paid for by the town of Windham, which also helped pay for local newspaper advertising for the market, the group tried other methods of marketing.

Harter had pages on Facebook and Twitter, hosted a website, and advertised the market on a dozen Maine agriculture websites, such as Get The group also gave customers a discount if they erected lawn signs advertising the market.

“We did a lot this past year, but we still got a poor showing,” she said. “We’re kind of sad it didn’t work out.”

Windham’s economic development director, Tom Bartell, was also disheartened by the news, but he hopes another market will crop up in the future.

“We’re saddened to see it won’t be going next year,” he said. “I know they gave it a good try. The town assisted with some marketing monies for signage and ads and I think maybe there will be an opportunity down the road to find another group and perhaps another location for the farmers market.”

Bartell said the town doesn’t allow off-site signs, but he agrees with Cassidy that the farmers market should have been allowed to erect temporary signs.

“It’s unfortunate, and to be honest with you, I think our sign ordinance needs to be looked at and updated to be able to allow certain signs that make sense. For a farmers market that’s there for four or five hours a week, how do you get that noticed? Or events that happen. So there are things that need to be done,” Bartell said.

But Bartell also thinks congested Route 302 may not be the best location for a farmers market.

“Everybody wants to be on Route 302 but some locations are better than others and I think location is something we’re going to have to work on, because if you’re trying to attract locals to a farmers market, then maybe Route 302 on a busy Saturday morning in the summer is not where you want to be,” Bartell said. “During the spring, summer and fall on a Saturday morning most residents avoid Route 302 in North Windham because of the visitor traffic.”

Other locations with good visibility and parking might be hard to find within the busy North Windham area, although the Chaffin Pond community park under discussion might provide a future home, Harter said.

Cassidy, of Penny Farthing Farm, said she and her fellow proprietors, Linda Simonson and Sue Fortier, won’t be looking to join another market anytime soon. Instead, they are moving in a new direction, teaming with individual customers wanting fresh produce in a contractual agreement known as a CSA, short for Community Supported Agriculture.

“I think we’re going to be focused on building up more growing area and I think we may try to do a CSA situation,” Cassidy said. “People buy a subscription to the harvest, they get a certain number of weeks at a certain rate, every week they come and get a bag filled with whatever is fresh at that time. So they’re sharing in the risk and the bounty.”

Customers at the Lakes Region Farmers’ Market, shown here in
2009, will have to look elsewhere for farm-fresh produce. The
Windham market won’t reopen this year. The market had operated
April-October in a parking lot near Manchester Elementary School in
North Windham since 2007. (File photo)

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