The Downtown Waterville Farmers Market, held from 2 to 6 p.m. every Thursday in the summertime, gained many members during the COVID-19 pandemic. Credit: Valerie Royzman

WATERVILLE, Maine — Waterville’s farmers market nearly doubled its number of vendors during the COVID-19 pandemic while others around the state shrunk and struggled to fill gaps.

Nineteen vendors attend the market, which runs 2-6 p.m. every Thursday at the Head of Falls park in the summer months. Nine vendors joined between 2020 and 2022, according to the market’s website.

Waterville’s major influx in vendors is a rarity among farmers markets around the state, according to the Maine Federation of Farmers’ Markets. One of the reasons the market grew was because its steering committee and members actively recruited new vendors, which is adding to Waterville’s plans to be a service center for central Maine.

Many markets lost vendors during the pandemic as farmers and makers invested in their farm stands, online systems and other opportunities, federation Executive Director Jimmy DeBiasi said. Some also decided the health risks weren’t worth continuing or consolidated the markets they attended.

Maine has about 115 summer farmers markets and 30 to 35 winter markets, according to the federation’s website.

Customers visit a variety of vendors at the Downtown Waterville Farmers Market on June 30. Credit: Valerie Royzman | BDN

Losing only a handful of vendors in many of Maine’s markets left sizable dents because they were not large in the first place. The federation has been promoting markets seeking new vendors on its Facebook page, DeBiasi said.

“We also saw people flocking to markets for the first time because they were outside and safe to shop at,” he said, noting adaptations for social distancing, addition of helpful signage and offering patrons other options for shopping.

Although the Downtown Waterville Farmers’ Market, established in 2006, drew a variety of new vendors in the past two years, it first had losses like other markets when the pandemic struck, said Mark Rollins, chairperson of the market’s steering committee.

In 2020, four vendors left, mainly because of health concerns, said Rollins of Heald Farms LLC, based in Troy. Some farmers, in Waterville and throughout Maine, downsized the number of markets they were attending or just retired. A few of the departing vendors came to the market once to hold their spot as members and waited to see how the pandemic evolved, then decided they couldn’t participate, he said.

“Those of us left looked around and said, ‘We’re either going to have a market or not,’ so we banded together,” Rollins said.

Recruiting for new meat vendors was a priority, and the market added three. Some of the new vendors include Early Ground Farm in Detroit, Honestleigh Acres in Unity and Junction Garden in Vassalboro.

Heald-corn4-JCR.jpg Paul Jones,left, and son Mark Rollins unload Heald Farm corn at the Heald family farm stand on the Troy-Unity line off Rt. 9 in Troy. Jones is the brother-in-law to Heald Farm patriarch Reginald Heald who continues to keep the farm in working order with the help of family. Credit: Courtesy of John Clarke Russ

Networking and recruiting among farmers and the steering committee helped attract vendors. Others are newcomers to the area or restarting a business, such as Cara Cribb of Anchor Me Farm, and it made sense to sign up based on proximity to Waterville and its busy, central location in Maine.

Cribb, whose farm is located in Windsor, is only about a half-hour from the market. After returning to Maine in 2020 and reopening her business under a new name, she was looking for a place to sell her gluten-free baked goods when she joined last year.

Lori Philbrick, who also manages the Hampden farmers market, and Mike Manner of Boyd Brook Farming, Inc., which sells beef and pork, are new to the Waterville market this year and joined after Rollins approached them. The hour-long drive from Frankfort is worthwhile because Philbrick has family located in Waterville and the surrounding area.

Ongoing revitalization  in downtown Waterville also helped grow the market’s vendors. That plus the close location to Dave Stevenson’s farm, Hidden Hill Acres, in South China led him to join the market, he said. The farmer, who grows microgreens and edible flowers, moved to the area from Iowa for its tight-knit farming community and began operating in October 2021.

Like other vendors, Stevenson attends multiple markets, including in Belfast, Union and Somerville. Many also sell products at their own farm stands and on FarmDrop, an online marketplace that connects Maine’s food producers to consumers.

A view of the Kennebec River and a former mill, pictured from the RiverWalk at Head of Falls in Waterville on June 30. Credit: Valerie Royzman | BDN

The market has benefited from nonprofit Waterville Creates, Children’s Discovery Museum and the Waterville Public Library setting up booths with crafts and other activities. It creates more of a community-friendly atmosphere that is attractive to young families, Rollins said.

Another aspect of growth amid the pandemic was low-income patrons who use the federally funded Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, at the market, he said. People use their food stamps to earn Harvest Bucks, or bonus bucks, to redeem for fruits and vegetables.

Across the state, the Maine Federation of Farmers’ Markets saw SNAP sales jump dramatically during the past two years — so much that it had to reduce the amount of Harvest Bucks it gives to shoppers by 50 percent, DeBiasi said.

Waterville’s winter market will return to Chace Forum along Main Street this year, Rollins said.