HALLOWELL — Dalziel Lewis went to the eighth annual Maine Farmers’ Market Convention on Sunday specifically to acquire pointers about ramping up her market presence for her agriculture business.

She leases land in Dresden and is looking for a long-term spot and more opportunities to sell her produce through farmers markets.

Lewis, of Hallowell, already participates in the Augusta Farmers’ Market at Mill Park, which moves indoors for the winter months to Lisa’s Legit Burritos at 185 Water St., only about two blocks away.

Listening to a presentation on “Scaling Up Your Farmers’ Market Business” by Heather Donahue of Pittsfield helped confirm what Lewis already suspected.

“You have to balance your quality of life with your financial needs and the health of the land and animals,” Lewis said.

Lewis is the sole proprietor of Dig Deep Farm, certified organic by the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association and offering mixed vegetables year-round through a community-supported agriculture program and to many of her neighbors in Hallowell.

The convention drew more than 100 farmers market participants from Madawaska to Kittery and up to the western mountains, said Leigh Hallett, executive director of the Maine Federation of Farmers’ Markets. “It’s a really good representation of the state,” she said.

Attendees at the daylong convention Sunday at Maple Hill Farm Inn and Conference Center – where more than half the vehicles in the parking lot had either agriculture or farm plates – chose from workshops offering advice on topics such as food safety guidelines, creative use of space at cramped market stalls and the challenges of pricing products for market.

In an address during the lunch session, Hallett promoted one of the next big events for the federation: “Snapshot Week,” set for Aug. 7-13, offering a week in the life of farmers markets across the state. It coincides with National Farmers Market Week.

Donahue, who operates Balfour Farm, an organic dairy and farmstead creamery, talked mostly about the rewards and drawbacks of participating in up to 10 farmers markets at once and asked the workshop participants to consider carefully why they needed or wanted to grow and then offered a series of suggestions to help and a few cautions as well.

She and her husband bought their farm in December 2010 and immediately signed up to provide their dairy products at every farmers market they could, convinced, Donahue said, that they would get accepted at none and lose the farm the first year. Donahue said that buying a farm in winter in Maine might not be the best timing, but they made it work.

They got in 10 farmers markets, three of them Wednesday – Gardiner, Portland and Falmouth – which required creative scheduling on their part. They scaled back to six the next year, and that still required “a lot of chess pieces moving.”

For the most recent year, Donahue said, “We’re kind of down to just the right size,” she said, which expands revenues but requires less time at market because they’ve tailored their product offerings and grown their wholesale business. The lesson she learned, she said, was that adding markets didn’t always increase revenue.

Balfour Farm now processes all its milk into yogurt and cheese and aims to specialize in hard cheeses.

Donahue offered tips to her fellow farmers, telling them that “Sampling turns into sales,” and that a move to returnable glass containers made her coolers heavier but tripled her yogurt sales and brought repeat customers. Donahue recommended “clear, concise labeling” of all products, including providing expiration dates.

“People are very conditioned to things expiring,” she said.

Donahue also suggested cooperating with another market vendor, saying that Bob Neal of The Turkey Farm in New Sharon brought Donahue’s coolers with the products for her regular customers when she was unable to get to the market.

Neal followed Donahue at the session, telling the audience that he sold $84,000 worth of turkey in his final year. Neal retired the day after Thanksgiving last year.

But he recalled the days in 1994 when he drove 81 miles each way to the Orono Farmers’ Market and rewarded himself on the way home only if he sold $100 worth of turkey. There were a lot of days that he didn’t have ice cream, he said.

 


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