The popularity of farmers markets across the country has rapidly increased over the last decade, partially spurred by a greater awareness of the source and quality of what people eat.

But the connection goes deeper for some customers and farmers than knowing a a head of lettuce wasn’t doused in pesticides.

Briana Bizier of Fairfield stopped by the table of Cornerstone and Fail Better Farms at the Downtown Waterville Farmers’ Market last Thursday to buy a few veggies and say goodbye to the farmer who had been supplying her family food for the last three years.

Bizier, 33, who said she’s moving to Buffalo, N.Y., thanked Hanne Tierney, one of the owners of the farms, for feeding her family over the years.

Bizier’s two-year-old daughter, Sage, said goodbye a little differently.

“Did you take a bite of that?” Bizier asked her daughter, as she grabbed a bundle of Swiss chard now missing a small bite from the bottom of the red, yellow and pink stocks.

“Nope,” replied Sage, shaking her head.

Bizier added the bunch of Swiss chard to her pile of veggies. “She loves her Swiss chard,” Bizier said.

The accelerated growth of farmers markets also brings new opportunities and challenges — beyond the occasional unauthorized snacking — for farmers trying to earn a living at the markets.

The number of farmers markets in Maine and across the country doubled in the last decade, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and state groups tracking farmers markets, increasing about 10 percent each year.

Maine has between 109 and 141 farmers markets. Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry lists 109 on its agricultural promotion website, while the Maine Farmers’ Markets Federation says there are 141.

National Farmers Market Week began Sunday, and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced in a USDA news release that 8,144 farmers markets are currently listed in the department’s directory.

The USDA doesn’t track overall sales from farmers markets; but direct agricultural sales in Maine, which includes farmers markets, farm stands, pick-your-own and community supported agriculture shares, increased to about $18 million in 2007 from $11 million five years before, according to the USDA’s Census of Agriculture. The number of farms selling directly to consumers and the portion of overall farm sales it encompassed also increased.

Jessica Nixon, agricultural promotional coordinator at the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, said the state expects the number of sales to show an increase in the next census, set to be released in February 2014.

Crowded markets

Some experts wonder when the growth of new farmers markets will halt and if the demand can sustain the current number.

The more established farmers markets already show signs of reaching their peak in terms of the number of vendors needed to fulfill demand.

The limited opportunities in established farmers markets was one of the obstacles of agricultural growth in Maine reported by farmers and crop advisors in a 2011 focus group study by the University of Maine Cooperative Extension.

John Jemison, a soil and water quality specialist at the extension who worked on the study, said one of the things they heard in the discussions was that a lot of the established markets are saturated and difficult to get into.

Colleen Hanlon-Smith, executive director of the Maine Farmers’ Markets Federation, reported similar issues with crowded markets. She said the owners of a farm in Bremen contacted the federation for help because they couldn’t get into any of the area markets.

The federation looked at farmers markets in the different communities around the farm and identified where and when a market may succeed, Hanlon-Smith said. As a result, the owners of the farm started a Saturday farmers market in Thomaston.

She said that fits with a trend she’s seen of young farmers starting or growing fledgling markets around their own communities, instead of trying to wedge themselves in an established market.

A case in point, she said, is the farmers market in Hallowell.

Ben Marcus, one of the owners of Sheepscot General at Uncas Farms in Whitefield, took the lead to organize the Hallowell market this year and changed the day from Sunday to Tuesday evening to try to re-energize the market. The city hosts live music downtown on Tuesdays, which often draws a sizable crowd.

“It’s hard when you don’t have any central agency to keeping anything going,” he said. “Hallowell’s a great town. It needs a farmers market.”

Marcus said he is looking to grow the business at the store and cafe in Whitefield more than at farmers markets, but he plans to stick with the market in Hallowell to help it grow.

No middle man

Farmers markets allow producers to gather instant feedback from customers and benefit from not going through grocer or wholesalers that take a portion of the margin, said Caragh Fitzgerald, an agricultural educator at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension.

“Financially, that’s a big benefit,” Fitzgerald said, “and for some farmers, they really like to have the interactions with customers.”

The types of vendors at each market, from homesteaders with a small vegetable plot to farmers relying on markets for the majority of their income, vary between different markets, said Colleen Hanlon-Smith, executive director of the Maine Farmers’ Markets Federation. Many markets also have vendors besides just vegetables and meat producers.

Tierney, one of the owners of Cornerstone and Fail Better Farms in Palmyra, is an example of a farmer relying solely on farmers markets for her income.

The farms she co-owns sell a variety of vegetable and pork products at several markets, from Bangor to Portland. About a third of the business is vegetables and the other two-thirds is from pork, Tierney said.

“I can’t imagine doing what we do in a different way,” she said. “It’s really great. It would seem unfortunate to miss having the interactions with the customers.”

But Tierney said she understands why some farmers don’t do the markets.

“It’s a day off the farm. In my case, it’s four days off the farm,” she said.

Data on how many farmers in the country or Maine go to farmers market isn’t recorded by the USDA.

In a report released in March by the USDA’s NASS New England Field Office, however, 23 percent of fruit and vegetable farmers reported using farmers markets for distribution in 2012.

Economic impact

Farmers markets provide communities with more than just a local event and income for some farmers. Studies have shown that the economic impact of money spent at farmers markets has a multiplier effect for the rest of the economy, according to James McConnon, a specialist for the University of Maine Cooperative Extension and a professor of economics at UMaine.

McConnon cited a 2005 study from Iowa State University that showed that every dollar spent at farmers markets in Iowa generated an additional 58 cents in direct sales for the economy.

Farmers use their incomes to pay for services from other businesses and to hire more workers, who then have more income to spend in the economy, McConnon said.

The study also found that farmers markets in Iowa had an employment multiplier of 1.45, meaning that every full-time-equivalent job from a farmers market created almost half of another full-time-equivalent job in the economy.

McConnon said that although the study was done in Iowa, he expects the multiplier effects to be similar in Maine too.

“You end up having kind of a magnet effect that draws in individuals on a regular basis to do their purchases, and also the spillover effect in the community in which they’re located,” he said.

Sarah Smith, owner of Grassland Organic Farm in Skowhegan, said another benefit of employing workers at farms is that it spreads the importance of buying food locally.

“Those people, whether they go on to farm or not, are taking forward a message into the world about what farming is actually like and how hard it is,” Smith said, while working at the Farmers’ Market at Mill Park in Augusta last week, “why there’s value in spending $3 a bunch for Swiss chard directly from a farmer, rather than $2.79 at a grocery store. They become some of our best advocates in the world.”

Smith said her goal — and the challenge for farmers markets — is to reach the people not coming, the people driving past the market to buy vegetables at a large supermarket.

Markets like the one in Mill Park and Waterville have made some strides in that department by allowing people to use Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits and electronic payment methods like credit and electronic benefits transfer cards to purchase goods from vendors.

“I think that the cost of food in the grocery store is going to continue to go up,” Smith said, “and that the success and the importance of supporting local farmers is just going to be ever greatly increased.”

Paul Koenig — 621-5663
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