Fresh-air shopping supports local producers
DEXTER/DOVER-FOXCROFT – As much as COVID-19 has complicated everyone’s lives, it has boosted business for certain niche industries, including local farmers markets.
“Sales have been up from last year and we’ve seen a bunch of new customers,” said Mary Hoskins, owner of Cedar Hill Farm, about the Dexter Farmers Market. “I’m pretty sure some of it is pandemic related because we have had comments from customers about enjoying shopping outside and helping local farmers. We moved to a more visible location this year so that has had an effect, also.”
Gretchen Huettner, owner of Farm in the Woods, said that the Dover Cove Farmers Market is also doing well this spring. “We have been extremely surprised at the outpouring of support from our customers, and the number of new customers we have been seeing,” she said.
The number of people coming through the market has increased significantly, and for many vendors, sales figures are also up this season. “We had one vendor who said their opening day sales were more than double a typical Memorial Day weekend, and many of our vendors don’t have much remaining product at the end of the day,” Huettner said. “We are optimistic that this will bode for a wonderful summer for customers and vendors alike. Many of our vendors are making plans to increase their production and product offerings, as well. For those that grow produce, the season is off to a complicated start, but we are optimistic that by early July things will be looking really good.”
Farmers markets were deemed essential able to open as seemed prudent throughout the pandemic. The Dexter Farmers Market runs summers only and has seen no changes to its schedule. This year, the market moved to 445 Corinna Road, just past Brooks Tire. There are two regular vendors, “but several others attend as guests and we are always looking for more farmers to join us,” Hoskins said. The market runs from noon to 3 p.m. on Saturdays through mid-October.
The Dover Cove Farmers Market runs from Memorial Day weekend through the last Saturday in October on South Street near the Piscataquis Chamber of Commerce from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. The weekend before Thanksgiving, the market reopens in the basement of the Thompson Free Library every other Saturday through the end of April – usually.
“We decided in March to close the winter market six weeks early,” Huettner said. “When we were faced with the unknown, it just seemed to make sense. Our market for March 14 was poorly attended, and we had four vendors for the winter, and every household had at-risk members.”
Both markets are taking steps to keep vendors and customers safe. “Vendors wear masks and we provide plenty of hand sanitizer and alcohol sprays for wiping surfaces,” said Hoskins. “We want our customers to feel comfortable and welcome.”
At Dover Cove, efforts to create more spacing were implemented. “Having traffic cones has helped us with distancing, and I feel like the parking lot is safer as a result, because cars seem to be slower pulling in and parking, so that is an added bonus,” said Huettner. Dover Cove customers may also preorder through individual vendors or the market’s Facebook page for minimal-contact shopping.
“We discussed many different things, but decided that supplying hand sanitizer and ample spacing for everyone would be some of the wisest precautions we could take,” she said. “Many of the vendors wear masks when they deem it necessary when dealing with customers, but we have respected everyone’s personal situations. We heavily discussed many of the other suggested precautions and decided that we really needed to leave it up to vendors on how they wanted to deal with their product and money.”
Their position, Huettner said, is that, “we are outside and most of us have tables in our booths that help us maintain distance between customers. According to the University of Maine and other sources COVID-19 has no links to or evidence of being spread through food so we felt comfortable with our choices for the market.”
On June 13, Dover Cove offered free masks to customers, courtesy of a “friend of the market” who sewed and donated an entire box of face coverings. “We were so thankful and happy to see people utilizing the resource if they needed them,” Huettner said. “This is a community effort and we are thankful for all of the support we have seen this season. We all love the market and in deciding what to do this summer, we didn’t want to lose that precious sense of community.”
Both the Dexter and Dover markets participate in the Maine Harvest Bucks program, which allows customers paying with EBT to collect matching “bucks” to spend on fruits and vegetables. Dover Cove has a few Frequent Buyer Cards left, which award shoppers $10 in Harvest Bucks after shopping at the market four times. Huettner said several vendors also accept WIC vouchers.
There are five regular vendors at Dover Cove. “Our vendor numbers for the summer are actually up,” said Huettner. “We have several guest vendors that have participated because their normal marketing options are closed. We had My Three Leaves join us late last year, and Maison de Chevre is new this season. We are trying to figure out how we can safely accommodate more vendors if they would like to participate, which is a wonderful problem to have!”
Dover Cove was given a break on fees this year due to the pandemic. “We have talked about moving because the $350 vendor’s fee from the town has been difficult to cover most years due to the fluctuations in vendor numbers and our other expenses,” said Huettner. “Our budget is pretty bare bones and many times vendors cover additional things because of that. This year we have been so grateful to the town for only charging us half of the normal fee, and we are hoping that if things can continue on the current trajectory it will mean that we are much more financially stable going into the future. It was a simple act of kindness on the town’s behalf, when we faced the unknown, that is making a huge difference for us this year.”Dover Cove is missing the 4H Passport Program, which has been put on hold this summer. “We are hopeful that families will still come,” Huettner said. The program offered Veggie Vouchers to kids, sponsored by the Piscataquis Regional Food Center, the Piscataquis County Cooperative Extension Executive Committee, and Farm in the Woods. Organizers are trying to figure out how to offer Veggie Vouchers as a Dover Cove program this year, “in hopes that it will help us maintain the participation of local families at market. We all love to see the kids and the thought that goes into their shopping,” she said.