BELFAST, Maine — As waves of eager shoppers surged into the United Farmers Market of Maine building during its grand opening on Saturday, May 27, they were greeted by a sight that seemed somewhat unprecedented for the small coastal city.
Farmers, artisans, chefs and craftspeople presided over 65 stalls, featuring a wide range of vegetables, prepared food and other goods. There were six-packs of tender seedlings, piles of spring produce such as rhubarb and ramps, mouthwatering samples of Laotian and other ethnic cuisines, artisanal cheeses, organic microgreens, gifts, delicious baked goods and much, much more. Between the crowds — about 2,000 people turned out for the market’s first day — and the sheer variety, more than one shopper was overheard comparing the Belfast market to those in larger cities.
“We could be in Brooklyn,” marveled one visitor, whose son was making a beeline for Stone Fox Farm Creamery’s ice cream stand.
Count that as a big score for Paul Naron, the entrepreneur who purchased the former Mathews Brothers window showroom on Spring Street a little over a year ago and who has been working ever since to make his dream market come to life.
“We want to run the world’s best year-round indoor farmer’s market,” he said. “We’re on our way.”
Naron, who said he has spent $1.5 million refurbishing the building, called the grand opening “fantastic.”
“Everybody had a great time, and a lot of the vendors sold out,” he said. “We’re already making a lot of improvements … we’ve got a couple new vendors and we’re starting to get a waiting list. And we’re building a few more tables for our Bayview Room, which is really the soul of the whole place, where people can break bread together and hang out. All the great markets in the world — that’s what makes them work.”
The market, which bills itself as the only year-round, permanent indoor farmers and artisans market in the midcoast, will only be open from 9 a.m. – 1 p.m. on Saturdays. Vendors there come from as far away as Van Buren in the north and Portland in the south as well as much closer to home.
“I didn’t think it was going to be this busy,” Al Corliss, the manager of Ararat Farms in Lincolnville, said. “I was hopeful — but I’m still surprised.”
Kevin Johnson of Belfast was running a stall to promote Searsport’s Penobscot Marine Museum, which just opened for the season.
“Quite a few people have stopped by to chat and I’ve gotten to tell them about our new exhibit,” he said. “I’m really impressed. I was optimistic before but I didn’t know what to expect. It’s somewhat reminiscent of the Common Ground Fair, with similar products and people. I just think it’s a great addition to town.”
Several local shoppers said that they hope that the new market will complement, but not compete, with the venerable Belfast Farmers’ Market. That market was begun 37 years ago and remains a favorite with farmers and shoppers who come to the outdoor location next to Waterfall Arts in the summer and next to Aubuchon Greenhouse on U.S. Route 1 in the colder months. Anne Saggese, the vice president of the Belfast Farmer’s Market, said that there has been some confusion in the past few months about the two markets.
“While the two markets have such similar names, they are very different,” she said. “We are what’s called a producer-only market, which guarantees that everything you find at this market is grown, raised or produced by the person you are buying it from … The new market, while it has many of the elements you’d find in a traditional farmer’s market, is a much broader marketplace in the style of the urban public markets, such as Pike Place in Seattle, Eastern Market in D.C. or the Boston Public Market.”
There’s room for both markets in Belfast, she said, and her words were echoed by many.
“I think it’s wonderful and will come back,” Suellyn Fleming of Northport said of the United Farmers Market of Maine. “And I’m also a regular, loyal, every-week farmer’s market shopper. I think I’ll probably do both of them.”
Anne Weinberg, an owner-operator at Chase Stream Farm in Monroe, took a minute to catch her breath after selling out of much of her fresh produce and the kimchi she made using her mother’s traditional Korean recipe.
“It is everything I had hoped it would be,” she said of the market.