Shoppers at the Portland farmers market in 2021. Because these shoppers donated to Maine Public Radio, they received Bumper Crop gift certificates sponsored by Lee Auto Mall to spend at farmers markets around the state. Credit: Courtesy of Maine Federation of Farmers' Markets

A statewide farmers market program that began in 2019 with one employer and a handful of Bangor-area markets has exploded to 47 employers and nearly 50 markets.

Bumper Crop, a Maine Federation of Farmers’ Markets program, allows employers to acquire gift certificates for their employees to spend on fresh local foods at farmers markets around the state.

The program is a way to support farmers and vendors while giving employees a chance to invest in their health, Executive Director Jimmy DeBiasi said. A wide range of employers offer or are searching for ways to give employees new paths to wellness, and this is a solution that also helps Maine’s economy, he said.

“We’re in a tight labor market and working in stressful environments,” he said. “Employers are psyched to give these to employees.”

And the program is seeing success. Last year, when the Bumper Crop program had 23 participating employers, about 700 employees spent $30,000 in certificates, according to the federation’s impact report.

Based on survey questions, the federation knows that those who redeemed the certificates usually spent their own money at markets, too. That equals somewhere between $56,000 and $80,000 in additional cash sales, DeBiasi said.

“Mainers in general value local food and like to support local farms,” he said. “The convenience of the modern-day grocery store is that it’s nearly 24/7. Many of us develop habits of being able to shop whenever we want, but it comes at the cost of buying locally.”

Shopping at farmers markets allows people to learn something new or try a vegetable they might not otherwise consider, plus they interact with those who grow Maine’s foods, DeBiasi said.

Being a member of Bumper Crop comes at no cost to employers and farmers markets, though the federation will likely develop a revenue model to keep the program sustainable. Employers only pay for the certificates their employees redeem at markets.

The federation quickly realized the immense value of the program after a pilot with the city of Bangor and a handful of markets there and in surrounding towns such as Brewer and Orono, DeBiasi said.

A man sells bread and baked goods at a farmers market.
Biggi’s co-owners Miki Macdonald, left, and Myer Taskel talk to customers at the Bangor Farmers Market on Oct. 27, 2019. Credit: Natalie Williams / BDN

Jennifer Theriault, Bangor’s clinical program coordinator, and a wellness committee approached the federation in 2019 because it wanted to offer employees a coupon or voucher for produce and organic foods, she said. That year, 135 employees requested the certificates.

That’s up to more than 300 employees, she said. Bangor has used nearly half of its wellness funding on the program this year because people are more aware of it and like that the market options have expanded.

Theriault thinks more employees see the state of today’s economy as another factor, and the certificates can really assist with grocery bills, she said.

“It also puts tens of thousands of dollars just from us [the city of Bangor] into these farmers locally, which is nice,” she said.

After Bangor signed on to Bumper Crop, the city of Lewiston and MaineHealth’s Pen Bay Medical Center in Rockport followed in 2020. The federation wasn’t sure what to expect for the summer farmers market season when the pandemic struck, so it focused on developing the program before an official launch in 2021, DeBiasi said.

A family walks around at a farmers market.
Salem Taylor, foreground, and her mother, Magy Taylor, talk about the bee working at Jillson’s farm stand at the Lewiston Farmers’ Market, Sunday, Aug. 15, 2021, in Lewiston, Maine. Her sister Summer Taylor is not sure about the bee as she snuggles with their father, Mike Hubble. Credit: Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal via AP

It used portions of a $160,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farmers Market Promotion Program to create a website, branding and promotional materials. Funding is also used for printing certificates and materials, data collection and analysis, and to pay staff, including those at the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association who help recruit employers.

The federation plans to create a toolkit to share with others across the country, DeBiasi said. He thinks a similar initiative might exist on a smaller scale in communities outside of Maine, but he isn’t aware of another statewide program like Bumper Crop.

This year, with 47 employers signed up, the federation hopes to see workers redeem $75,000 in certificates, DeBiasi said. About $110,000 is in circulation, meaning in employers’ hands or already given out to employees to spend at markets.

Some employers give the certificates to patrons and use them for other reasons, such as Lee Auto Malls, which has 16 car dealerships across the state. For the second year, the company donated more than $15,000 in Bumper Crop certificates to Maine Public, which gave them to membership drive donors.

Maine Beer Company got involved with the Bumper Crop program last year. The company purchased at least one $5 certificate for each of its 109 employees and is willing to invest more if there is interest, said Anne Marisic, who handles partnerships and communications.

Marisic checked out a market in Yarmouth that was new to her because of the program, and she thinks it encourages employees to visit several in their area because they happen during different days and times.

“As a company, we work on providing a really robust benefit program to our staff, and this was one more program we could add on that offered healthy local food to our team while supporting our farmers and foodways,” she said.

Later this year, the Bumper Crop program will be used at winter farmers markets, DeBiasi said. The federation also sees an opportunity to create individual gift certificates outside of the program.