MONROE, Maine — When Anna Shapley-Quinn and her three partners who run North Branch Farm in Monroe were developing their farm plan in 2009, they decided to take an unusual step for a farm in Maine.
They would let other farmers grow tender tomatoes, crunchy cucumbers and the other produce that shouts spring and summer. They would not run a summertime farm stand or sell farm shares in the warmer months. Instead, the North Branch farmers focused their attentions on the colder season, specializing in storage vegetables such as winter squash, onions, garlic, cabbage, potatoes, carrots, Brussels sprouts and cold-hardy greens such as kale. They don’t start selling these vegetables until September and don’t begin their biweekly winter farm share distributions until October.
It might seem like a backwards calendar in a state with a short growing season and a long winter, but it is working well for them, according to Shapley-Quinn. And they are still accepting new customers.
“Winter can seem so bleak,” she said. “But every two weeks, we have 30-plus families coming to our farm [to pick up their shares]. It’s really exciting. Our farm becomes a rural center of excitement and activity and community, which is the best part.”
Shapley and her fellow North Branch farmers aren’t alone, either, among Mainers striving to push against calendar limits to figure out ways to get Maine-grown produce onto plates during more months of the year. There are other farms like theirs that only specialize in winter shares. There also are farms that are adding such shares to their usual slate of summer farm shares and summer business. And according to the Maine Federation of Farmers’ Markets, it seems that more farmers markets in Maine are remaining open during at least some of the winter.
“There have been more year by year,” said Leigh Hallett, the executive director of the Pittsfield-based organization. “Winter markets are important for farmers. It’s good for farmers to keep interacting with their shoppers, and it’s good for Mainers to keep local produce part of their grocery shopping.”
For the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday, she urged Mainers to give their local farmers market a try when seeking such staples as potatoes, squash, cranberries and more. Her organization provides an online list of winter farmers markets around the state, which has nearly 30 locations.
“The food that people are going to be able to get at their farmers markets is really mind-boggling,” she said. “Prices are very comparable to, and often lower than, grocery stores. The markets have things that people need, and farmers also are really great about giving cooking tips.”
Additionally, winter farmers markets can be great places to do holiday shopping, including Christmas wreaths and all kinds of presents.
“You can get things like locally roasted coffee, locally made soaps and jewelry made from seaglass,” Hallett said. “I think people are thinking more carefully about locally made products instead of buying something cheap from who-knows-where. I do a lot of my Christmas shopping at the winter markets.”
Paul Volckhausen, who runs Happy Town Farm in Orland and is treasurer of the Ellsworth Farmers Market, which is open Saturdays at least until Christmas at the Unitarian Universalist Church, said that the winter market is smaller than the summer market. But it also is cozier, he said.
“We’re inside, and because we’re in a smaller space, it’s a more intimate situation,” he said. “We like the contact with our customers, and we keep bringing in new people as well.”
Clayton Carter of Fail Better Farm in Etna helps to manage farmers markets in Bangor and Orono, all of which stay open in the colder months. He said that he has been surprised by how popular the winter markets can be.
“One would expect the winter market to be slower than the summer market,” he said. “But there are many instances when the winter markets are busier. We’ve developed a devoted following.”
In the cold months, beginning the first Sunday in December, the Bangor Farmers’ Market moves into the banquet room at the Sea Dog Brewing Co. on the waterfront. It’s held the first and third Sundays of the month through April.
“It’s been great,” Carter said of the inside location, which will have at least a dozen vendors. “It’s busier and busier each year.”
Back in Waldo County, Bahner Farm in Belmont usually offers a winter farm share to its customers, but this year, Christa and Mike Bahner are trying something different — a winter buying club.
“Because of the drought, we had way less of our own storage crops than usual, and we sold a lot of it pretty quickly,” Christa Bahner said. “But people around here are just really hungry for fresh local stuff in the wintertime, and we like to meet that when we can.”
In the buying club, customers receive a weekly email that details what is available that week. The Bahners offer some of their own produce and obtain the rest from other local organic farms. They started experimenting with the buying club last winter and have found it to be quite popular.
“The buying club is great,” she said. “It’s much more flexible. The winter CSA [farm share] seemed to require a very committed customer, and you don’t have as much variety as in the summer. It’s usually the same six to eight things each time. But in buying club, everyone gets to choose what they want every week. It’s much more flexible.”
In Belfast, Anne Hallee of Rising Up Farm said that her farm focuses on winter storage vegetables and fresh greens grown in high tunnels during the colder months. In fact, the farm’s winter focus really stems from her family’s hunger for fresh greens during the winter.
“We started experimenting with our high tunnels to see what we could grow through the winter,” she said. “We had enough success to grow the business around it.”
Each week, she helps pack 21 boxes with about a pound of fresh greens and three or four types of storage crops. It’s the third year Rising Up has offered the winter farm share and the formula seems to be working well.
“We have very little turnover,” Hallee said. “It’s hard for people to get in, unless someone moves or their household habits change. I’m really excited to be an integral part of the community’s nourishment through the winter.”