PARIS — Many of the farmers’ markets in Oxford County are discovering new and unique ways to make sure they remain successful in the long term, and continue to attract customers and vendors.
Some market directors said the trend, overall, is one of growth. Others are acclimating to adversity and grinding away to build up their customer base again.
Bill Winslow said that the Harrison Farmers’ Market had a “really good season this year,” continuing an upward trend over the last several years of more customers and vendors.
“Each season has gotten successfully better, probably because the economy has slowly been improving,” said Winslow, who heads up the farmers’ market in Harrison.
He also credited a move from the parking lot of the town’s library and Town Office to a “new green space on the edge of Route 117.”
“There’s a lot more traffic on that stretch of road,” he added. “Location is very important in having a successful market.”
Winslow said that the market in Harrison began “close to 10 years ago,” and that he became involved in it a “couple of years after that.”
“It’s really grown since it first started,” Winslow said. “When we first started, there were only four vendors every week. Now, there are 11 or 12 who set up.”
BrennaMae Thomas-Googins, the assistant market manager for the Bridgton Farmers’ Market, said that the market in Bridgton has seen “slow but steady growth” over the 20 years it has operated.
“Things here were really, really great in 2017,” Thomas-Googins said. “We’ve noticed that we have a slower growth in vendors, but our existing vendors stick around and are doing more and more every year.”
In 2017, Thomas-Googins said that Bridgton market averaged about 10 vendors and 14 booths, and on July 4, one of the busier times of the market season, they had up to 16 vendors and 24 booths.
One thing that Thomas-Googins said she and the other vendors attempt to do to keep the Bridgton market successful each year is “growing a sense of community within the market, and having that radiate to our customers.”
“One of the things we did quite a few years ago was offer a system where low-income folks who are using SNAP and EBT can use them at the market,” Thomas-Googins said. “It fell out of use after awhile, but a couple of years ago, we were able to get a grant from the Maine Federation of Farmers’ Markets to offer credit, debit and EBT.”
She said that the vendors are trying to “create a fun environment that people want to come back to, one that’s not just going to attract folks from away who are up here for the season.”
“We have some amazing locals who support the vendors year-round, even during our winter market,” she said.
Thomas-Googins recommended that other farmers’ markets looking to start or grow “look at other town’s near you” to “ensure that you’re not cannibalizing other markets.”
“The more markets there are, the less impact your market will make, so you need to really take a look at what’s in the community and what the need is in the area,” Thomas-Googins said.
She added that it helps having a dialogue with the town government.
“If you don’t have a great relationship with the town you’re in, it’s going to be a lot tougher,” she said.
Dottie Bell said that in 2012, when the Waterford Farmers’ Market first launched, there were only two farm vendors.
“Now, in 2017, we have 10 weekly vendors with the occasional guest,” she said. “Local musicians join in on the event when they can.”
She said that all of the vendors saw an increase in sales in 2017, and that during the summer months, the population of the town “nearly doubles,” and many of the seasonal residents use the market as a place to purchase their produce.
She added that the success of the market in recent years is likely due to the variety of vendors.
“The market offers meats, eggs, dairy products, breads, baked goods, vegetables, soaps and lavender products,” Bell explained. “This is a very complete market.”
Bell said that in the future, she wants to see the market make contact with local campgrounds before the market season begins and advertise on the Web.
She also wants to continue seeing new vendors offer something new that “isn’t being offered yet.”
Steve Abbott, the Bethel Farmers’ Market manager, said that while he didn’t start doing the farmers’ market until 2010, he knows it has been around since at least 1986.
“I recently had a customer who came to the market and told me she was one of the founding members of the market” Abbott said. “I’m from Sumner, and when I came back to Maine from college, I wanted to start farming. I started with maple syrup, and shortly after that, I started doing the market in Bethel.”
He said that in 2010, the market was “very small,” but had “a good community” with “room to grow.”
It’s that same community support that has helped the market in Bethel grow over the last seven years, Abbott said.
“The year-round Bethel residents generally want to support the market and see it succeed,” Abbott said. “We also have people with summer homes here who are more conscious of buying local foods. I think that one-two punch has helped the Bethel market stay successful.”
He said that it’s also important for each market to have “a couple of core vendors that can provide a wide variety of produce” and that “people can rely on to be there every week.”
However, Abbott said that the trouble most markets face – including Bethel – is attracting new vendors.
“In Bethel, sometimes it’s hard to find enough vendors,” Abbott said. “It’s taken awhile to build up our numbers to where they are. Right now, we’re running with about seven vendors a week, and sometimes smaller than that.”
He added that sometimes, the success of a market rests in the eyes of the vendor.
“I mean, as long as the vendors feel like they’re doing good and selling enough product, that’s what’s important,” Abbott said.
In the coming years, Abbott said that he would like to increase the number of vendors coming to the Bethel Farmers’ Market and continue holding a winter market inside the lobby of the Gem Theater through December, something that the market began doing in 2016.
Several years ago, the Norway Farmers’ Market at Old Squire’s Green was a tale of two markets: the Norway Farmers’ Market would set up at Longley Square on the corner of Main and Deering streets, while the Old Squire’s Farm Market set up at 493 Main St., two-tenths of a mile up the road.
However, in 2016, the two markets merged into one, leading to a year of transition for the Norway Farmers’ Market at Old Squire’s Green.
Pat Martin, market liaison for Old Squire’s Farm Market, said that it was “a year of changes” for the new market.
“One thing that happened was the market vendors voted not to keep the marketplace open over the winter,” Martin said. “They felt that with the added overhead, it wasn’t worth keeping it open for the winter.”
She said that the 2016 winter marketplace was “very good,” but that “overall, most people come into farmers’ markets for the vegetables, and in Maine, it’s just not really possible to keep that going through the winter.”
She said that while the 2017 market for Norway was “one of transition,” the plan is to come back to 493 Main St. in 2018 and try to grow.
“We’re going to play it by ear and see how it goes,” Martin said. “We’re still working on our nonprofit status. It seems like something is always in transition at this point.”