September 18, 2011

Skowhegan farmers' market is state's most popular

Local market tops American Farmland Trust's online survey

By Doug Harlow
Staff Writer

SKOWHEGAN -- Once fenced off with razor wire and reserved for prisoner transport vehicles, the parking lot of the former Somerset County Jail these days is filled twice a week with colorful tents and tables of locally grown food.

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A POPULAR MARKET: Jeff McCabe of Skowhegan and his 2-year-old son Finn browse the Skowhegan Farmers’ Market on Wednesday. The market was recently named the most popular farmers’ market in Maine following an online survey of more than 90,000 farmers’ market customers.

Photo by Jeff Pouland

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SPICY STUFF: Hot peppers from the One Drop Farm in Cornville wait for customers at the Skowhegan Farmers' Market.

Photo by Jeff Pouland

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It's the Skowhegan Farmers' Market next to what is now the Somerset Grist Mill, inside the old jail. And it's not just any old farmers' market.

The Skowhegan market has been named the most popular farmers' market in Maine in an online contest conducted by American Farmland Trust. The survey began June 1 and had nearly 95,000 hits, according to Gretchen Hoffman, manager of engagement and communications at the Washington D.C.-based farmland trust.

"The reason that it is the most popular market in Maine isn't because our produce is better; the food isn't better here, it's that we have a great community vibrancy to this market," market manager Sarah Smith, co-owner of Grasslands Organic Farm in Skowhegan, said. "We do lots of special events that are free for families to come down and have a good time and the music that we have every week; the atmosphere. It all goes together."

Twenty-five farmers' markets in Maine participated in the contest and Skowhegan, now in its 14th year, was named the most popular, with 67 votes.

Rounding out the top five markets in Maine were Damariscotta Farmers' Market, Portland's Saturday Farmers' Market, Portland's Wednesday Farmers' Market and the Orono Farmers' Market.

American Farmland Trust holds the annual America's Favorite Farmers' Market contest to raise national awareness about the importance of buying fresh food from local farms and saving the farmland where it's grown.

Since its founding in 1980 by a group of farmers and citizens concerned about the rapid loss of farmland to development, American Farmland Trust has helped save millions of acres of farmland from development and led the way for the adoption of conservation practices on millions more, according to the trust's website.

Smith said the Skowhegan market offers a program called The Pickup, a community supported agriculture program that has started selling weekly shares of locally grown, in-season food out of the Grist Mill. Grasslands Farm also participates in a state run program called Senior Farm Share for older, low-income residents through the farmers' market.

"The motto of this market is good food is a right, not a privilege," Smith said. "The Senior Farm Share program and WIC, which is women, infants and children, the food stamp program and all of those parts, those are all people that are part of our community who deserve to have access to this food just as much as anyone else."

The market also participates in a "double-dollar" program, which offers locally raised food at reduced prices through a grant from the Wholesome Wave Foundation. The Fruit and Veggie Prescription program is offered at the market, in which local doctors give out prescriptions for fresh fruit and vegetables for families with at least one obese family member, Smith said.

"It's changing the demographic here," Smith said. "People who always thought the farmers' market was out of reach have an incentive to come and try it and what they find is it's actually less expensive to buy fresh fruits and vegetable here."

Doug Harlow -- 612-2367


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Additional Photos

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A MARKET MASTER: Denise Delorie of Norridgewock, right, chats with Skowhegan Farmers' Market Master Sarah Smith on Wednesday.

Photo by Jeff Pouland


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