When Amy Sinclair took over management of the Yarmouth Farmers Market in 2015, it was limping. She’d heard that the town was about to shutter the market. Three years later, she’s in her fourth season and finally breathing a little easier about its future. We called her to talk about the surest sign of a successful market, the lengths she’s gone to find vendors and the unique approach the market takes to reach low income customers.

LET IT GROW: The Yarmouth Farmers Market, which is held every Thursday from 3 to 6 p.m., was down to just seven vendors in 2015. Today it has 15 regular vendors with an additional rotating stable of two to three guest vendors every week. Held at 317 Main and hosted by the 317 Main Community Music Center, it opens in June and runs into October. This is the market’s third home since Sinclair moved to town 17 years ago. “It used to be on the town green by the Town Hall. But it never really thrived there.” Before that, it was in the parking lot of Sacred Heart Church. “It needed a champion. It needed someone who loved it and wanted to make it grow.”

SECOND ACT: In stepped Sinclair, a former television journalist who got tired of the grind at around age 50, right around the time her employer was cutting staff. “TV was great when I was younger. But you get to be a certain age, standing outside on I-295 telling people it is snowing is not so…” (Say no more. Sounds a lot like reporting the people-are-shopping newspaper story the day after Thanksgiving. Since Sinclair is married to longtime Press Herald reporter Tux Turkel, she knows how newspapers work as well.) She’d worked with the Yarmouth community garden in the summer and planned to do that again, then start looking for work in September. Instead she went to the town, “and said, ‘Can I have the market?’ ” That first year she worked as a volunteer; since then she’s gotten a modest stipend funded through market sponsorships and vendor fees.

BRING ON THE BAND: Her first move was to partner with 317 Main Community Music Center, thinking that working with musicians from the nonprofit music school would liven up the mood of the market (the live music is typically from 4 to 5 p.m.). And attract more vendors, who had been gradually losing enthusiasm for Yarmouth. There’s too much competition from well-established Saturday markets in Brunswick and Portland, hence Yarmouth’s less desirable Thursday late afternoon time slot. Success begets success. “Everybody wants to be at the market that is super happening.”

FINDING FARMERS: She made cold calls. “I was going off the lists of people that participated in various fairs and festivals. Then I realized that most of the farmers are already maxed out.” She was looking in spring, and that didn’t help either. “The farmers are in the fields.” They weren’t picking up. So she hopped in the car, the way a reporter does. One of the first places she went was Justin Deri’s farm in North Yarmouth. “I found his trucked parked next to a greenhouse.” He was captive and he committed (he’s since left the market). He filled that cornerstone spot she needed. “That’s your Macy’s, once you get the guy with the great vegetables.”

VOUCHER VICTORY: In the first year or so, a high school student named Katie Waeldner approached her and asked, “Are you accepting SNAP EBT?” That’s the acronym for the government’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which are loaded on an electronic benefit transfer card and fill the role of food stamps. Sinclair said no. “I looked into it, and there was a lot of paperwork.” She was too busy resuscitating the market to stop and write a grant. But Waldren didn’t let it go. “She got back to me two or three times and said, ‘Maybe I could help you write a grant.'”

PERSISTENCE PAYS: “Her persistence just reminded me of the moral imperative of doing the right thing. We needed to find a way that more people could participate in the farmers market.” They came up with an alternative, bypassing the federal system with a local voucher system. They put out a jar at 317 Main to collect funds. They fundraised through Yarmouth Cares About Neighbors, a nonprofit that helps connect the needy with local resources. And Sinclair drops off $15 vouchers at the food pantry at the First Parish Congregational Church for distribution. “When they spend the $15 out, they return the voucher to me and I reimburse the farmers.” It’s not that Sinclair isn’t a fan of SNAP; she thinks the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program is great. But this way she can give the money to the farmers immediately. And unlike SNAP/EBT, which places limits on items with say, added sugars, buying is unrestricted. “I didn’t want to be the arbiter of what people are going to purchase…I know what people buy. They are not coming and buying 89 whoopie pies. They are shopping for food, just like everybody.”

DATA DUMP: The first year she ran the voucher program, they gave out 35. Last year, it was up to 120. She suspects it will be more this year. “We haven’t done much advertising around it, knowing there was a limited amount of funding.” In the future, the Yarmouth Farmers Market may take on EBT cards, she said, but for now, this is working.

DREAM BIG: Sinclair would love it if someday the Yarmouth Farmers Market would be so big the town would shut down the street for it. “I am still beating the bushes. The core is making sure I have at least four farmers” (as opposed to, say, soap or jam makers). But the trajectory is upward: “Last year was the first year where I didn’t worry every week about the market and vendors being supported. I finally feel that we are at a place of stability. Just like they say that with perennial plants in a garden, it takes three years before the plants really thrive.” Other than blocked-off streets, how will she know when the market is safely successful? “The life blood of the farmers market is the regular customers that come with multiple tote bags.”

A BASKET A TASKET: She wants customers to have a “full market basket experience,” meaning they can get food to feed their family for a week, from proteins to dairy and seasonal foods and vegetables. “Fresh bread is key. Ideally, I like to have vendors who bring some prepared food. You solve a problem for working parents if you can send them home with a container of soup or meatballs.”

ELITIST EATING? What does she say to people who complain about prices being high at farmers markets? “I hear the argument a lot that the farmers market can be an elitist experience.” Items often cost more than they do at the supermarket, she concedes. But the produce is fresher because typically, it’s been picked that day and thus it lasts longer, two weeks in the fridge if the timing is right. (Our unplanned experiments bear this out.) “There is very little waste if you purchase at the farmers market.” But there’s more to it than that. “People need to see the big picture.” Feeding yourself from the farmers market means feeding the local economy, and that in turn means feeding yourself, something much less chewy than cauliflower but nonetheless, substantive. It’s community. “I don’t want to be preachy about it, but on the other hand, it matters.”

Mary Pols can be contacted at 791-6456 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: MaryPols

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