Every Wednesday as the summer sun rises over Monument Square, dozens of independent Maine growers unload their vehicles and set up stalls to sell local products: fresh fruit, vegetables, meat, cheese, bread, honey and flowers. They are here for the farmers market that transforms Portland beginning at 7 a.m. every week from May through November.
Located directly across from the Portland Public Library and surrounded by the high-standing buildings of corporate offices, the market is hard to miss. You know you’ve entered it when you see the reusable shopping bags decorated with cheerful images of trees and animals. Stamped messages like “I am a plastic bottle” or “I am earth-wise” gloss over the underlying goal of buying and grown locally: to personally meet your food’s producer and to pollute less.
On a recent trip I wanted to discover why the food sold here is more expensive than our standardized, homogeneous grocery stores, and what consumers or producers can do to make those prices comparable.
Upon meeting Mary Ellen Chadd of Green Spark Farm in Cape Elizabeth, my misconception was immediately challenged. Though we meet in the last hour of the market, Mary Ellen is warmhearted, friendly and energetic. I ask what makes the prices at the market so expensive.
“Are prices actually expensive?” she counters with a smile. She points to her $4 cauliflower and asks me to compare it with what’s offered at Hannaford. Shaking her head, she suggests that high prices are one of the biggest misconceptions shoppers have about products sold at the farmers market.
She points to her cauliflower and begins telling me the journey its taken to finally arrive at the Green Spark stand in Monument Square. The seeding process began in April, which was followed by fertilizing, two hours of planting, six hours of weeding, and the application of pest-control, which then breaks down in two to four hours — much quicker than the one used in conventional farming, Mary Ellen points out. She tells me that independent farming takes time, and the costs include purchasing farming infrastructure, but more importantly, labor. At the moment Mary Ellen employs only one worker twice a week. But if she needs to extend her production due to increased demand, she could hire more employees to work longer hours.
While we talk Mary Ellen is interrupted several times, as customers ask questions like what variety is the salad mix and how to cook the chard. She calls her customers by their names, gives cooking tips and even compliments their outfits.
Ultimately, this is the true genius behind buying local products. Customers can meet the producers of their food, learn about their work ethic and ask cooking questions. Mary Ellen’s face lights up when she begins talking about the personal exchanges and learning experiences that come from buying from the local farmer’s market. She wants customers to be able to approach her, ask questions and really help themselves by taking a more active approach to the food they buy.
In this way the farmers market is a more customized and personal shopping experience, not the place to learn the nutritional value of food by reading the print on the back of a box.
Meeting the hopeful, hard-working farmers here caused me to reminisce about some of my own childhood memories from growing up in Albania. Though a relatively poor country, every Albanian city had something that many American cities lack: a community-based exchange of local food. Growing up, I was able to buy grapes at the farmer’s market from Monday to Sunday, 6 a.m. until 6 p.m. I knew what produce was in season, I always joked with the “Lemon Lady,” and I loved the oranges that the lady sold at the end of the street. That’s the true value of your local farmers: they’re people – not boxes, not machines. Buying local food requires effort and planning, but heck, the fresh blueberries are so worth it.