STOCKING UP Austin Chadd stocks Green Spark Farm’s self-serve, honor-system farmstand.
With a limited growing season and high demand for local food, Maine farmers have a short window of time to get their products to the public. While farmers' markets and community-supported agriculture plans (CSAs) are popular, it can be difficult for vegetable farmers to stand out among their peers. Some have found that teamwork, creativity, and technology can attract more customers and help boost sales among existing ones.
Penny Jordan of Jordan's Farm in Cape Elizabeth embraces technology as a way to reach more customers. She's created a four-season online market so people can shop, order, and pay from home. A few days later, the order is ready for pickup.
"Farms are businesses, and like any other business, farmers need to leverage the tools and technology available to market and distribute their products," she says. "Shopping online is very convenient and saves time."
Ian and Tabitha Jerolmack of Stonecipher Farm in Bowdoinham have taken the restaurant angle. When they started farming, they participated in a few markets and sold CSA shares, but quickly realized they'd have to do more in order to make it.
"We were new and small and that was limiting because there were so many of us," Ian says. "Veggie vendors really have to get creative in order to stand out."
When they got a spot in the Portland farmers' market, they saw restaurants as an opportunity to move the produce that didn't sell at the market. They started cold-calling restaurants and made connections with chefs.
"A lot of good business came out of it," he says. "Now, I have a reciprocal relationship with the restaurants; we take care of each other."
Other farmers use that foodie-economy tactic too, but Mary Ellen and Austin Chadd of Green Spark Farm in Cape Elizabeth returned to a traditional approach to give their customers more access to their product. They opened a self-serve, honor-system vegetable stand. The stand, at 316 Fowler Road, is open between 8 am and 8 pm.
Mary Ellen said the vegetable stand is another step in adjusting to meet the needs of the customer. "We didn't open the stand because we knew it would make us a certain percentage of income, we opened the stand because people asked," she said. "It's a different experience from the market . . . and we are excited by it."
When Sarah Trask and Pete Engler of Small Wonder Organics in Bowdoinham started farming in 2010, they grew rare, heirloom tomatoes — a lot of them. To sell the tomatoes that didn't move at the farmers' markets, they created a tomato CSA called the Tomato Passion Club, now in its third year. Each week (for seven weeks) the customer picks up a box of tomatoes. Trask says she encourages CSA members to contact one another and share tomato recipes — to form a community.
While Trask hopes her CSA members will connect, Sarah Wiederkehr and Steve Burger of Winter Hill Farm in Freeport are working on making connections with other farmers. In addition to growing flowers and vegetables, the couple operates a creamery that produces milk, yogurt, and cheeses. And they've partnered with Frith Farm in Scarborough and Little Ridge Farm in Lisbon Falls to offer farm customers a weekly CSA dairy share.
"A lot of people are looking for a one-stop shop for all of their local products and this is a good way to consolidate the effort," Wiederkehr says. "This way (customers) can buy their meat and eggs and produce from Frith and their dairy from us."