Maine farmers' markets buck national trend, officials say

BY Maureen Milliken

Photo / Mainebiz archives
Photo / Mainebiz archives
Maine’s farmers’ markets appear to be bucking a national trend of lower participation, according to research by the Maine Federation of Farmers’ Markets.

Maine’s farmers’ markets appear to be bucking a national trend of lower participation, according to research by the Maine Federation of Farmers’ Markets.
The federation is conducting a survey on its website to gauge participation in farmers markets that asks about their buying habits, where they shop and how much they spend.
“Not many of markets track attendance, for a variety of reasons,” said Leigh Hallett, executive director of MFFM Friday morning. She said, aside from the survey, the MFFM is getting information from vendors.
“We have been checking in with farmers regarding sales this season, though, and have heard mostly good news. It's too early to get a comprehensive sense of how the season has been for markets across the state, but we're hearing of mostly consistent growth over last season.”
A Cornell University survey looking for input from consumers comes after a study that participation is down across much of the country.
The survey, which is available until Oct. 1, asks questions that are similar to the MFFM survey, though more in depth, with a focus on buying local food and goods.
Results will be analyzed by a team from Cornell’s Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics & Management.
Hallett said that there are factors related to Maine markets that may not have the same impact in other parts of the Northeast, or the country.
“The majority of our markets in in relatively rural areas,” ‘she said. “I suspect that markets in other states may be seeing more impact from an increase in options for shoppers to find local products. In many Maine market towns, the farmers' market is still the place to purchase fresh, locally-produced foods.”
She said weather also plays a part. “Weather impacts not only what is at markets, but how many people attend,” she said. “About 60% of our outdoor markets are on Saturdays. There have been years when the summer was marked by heavy rain on Saturday after Saturday. It's critical that shoppers who want to support local farms turn out even on rainy days.”
She told Mainebiz in June, that it’s hard to quantify Maine participation in farmers markets because they’re operated independently on a local level, and most sales are cash. 
The MFFM survey is one way to try to measure that data in a state that already shows signs of positive participation.
Maine is ranked second, behind Vermont, on the Locavore Index, which ranks states on their focus on local food.
The state has been ranked second every years since 2013, behind Vermont, and was fourth in 2012, when the index was first compiled.
When the state released an interactive map of the state’s farmers markets in June, it noted that the number of both summer and winter farmers markets in Maine is growing. There are are 120 summer markets in Maine this year, and there were around 30 winter markets last winter, the MFFM said.
There is also a trend in Maine toward increasing capacity at existing markets, with more vendors and other new features like food trucks, music and activities, the organization said.

The organization is also strongly supporting the Harvest Bucks program, which makes it easier for those with SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits to buy produce and other products at farmers markets. Those who use their benefits at farmers markets and other local fruit and produce sellers get bonus coupons, which they can redeem for for fruit and vegetables. The MFFM website lists 36 markets that take part in the program.
The USDA cites lack of access and the inability of low-income people to afford fresh produce as a major issue.
The Harvest Bucks program is supported at Maine farmers markets by volunteers who man information booths to help vendors and consumers understand how the program works.
In Farmington, the program launched this year at the Saturday farmers market after two years of planning, market organizers said earlier this summer. They said the program brings new customers to the market, as well as fights food insecurity in Franklin County.
The Bangor City Council will review a proposal Monday night to use $5,000 from a USDA Farmers Market SNAP Support Grant for outreach and support for the Harvest Bucks program at the Bangor Downtown Farmers’ Market, the Ohio Street Farmers’ Market in Bangor, the Hampden Farmers’ Market and the Brewer Farmers’ Market.
The support would be provided by by Bangor Public Health and Community Services.