Maine Farmers’ Market Convention

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Leigh Hallet, executive director of MFFM leads the proceedings.

Maine is blessed with a robust community of farmers and people that are passionate about local food. Not only do we have MOFGA (the Maine Organic Farmers’ and Gardeners’ Association), the nation’s oldest and largest organic organizations, but we also have the Maine Federation of Farmers’ Markets (MFFM). This was the second year I attended the Maine Farmers’ Market Convention which is led by MFFM and was held yesterday at the Kennebec Valley Community College Alfond Campus in Fairfield.

The MFFM was established in 1991 and has grown into a rich resource, serving farmers markets and working to grow access to local food across Maine. In 2014 Leigh Hallett took over as Executive Director; then in 2015 Emilie Knight was hired as the SNAP Program Coordinator, and Emily Buswell as an administrative assistant. These ladies have been instrumental in establishing a farmers’ market in Madison; the MFFM website is a wealth of information─stuff like how to operate a market, legal regulations, safety and sanitation, and even market promotion. The MFFM and all who serve the organization are dedicated to Maine’s local food network.

There were more than 130 people in attendance, representing markets from all across the state, with 3 different sessions over the course of the day and a total of 13 presentations. With so many issues important to my market and to me, it was hard to choose just 3 to sit in on!

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Trisha Smith of the Piscataquis County Cooperative Extension demonstrates how costumes like this carrot-suit can be used to engage kids.

One of the presentations I enjoyed most was titled: “Bringing the whole family: integrating youth and family programming at the farmers’ market”. I like to think that the Madison Farmers’ Market is a family-oriented market. We set up at the town park where families can play at the playground before or after their visit to the market. We also have a number of little ones that join our vendors at the Madison Farmers’ Market and the farmers and I have talked about ways we can incorporate more family-oriented activities over the course of the market season. There were 4 presenters for this topic: Deb Barnett of the Kennebec Cooperative Extension, Trisha Smith of the Piscataquis Cooperative Extension, Nancy Wood of the Knox County Community Health Coalition, and Elizabeth Siegel of the Union Farmers’ Market.

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Nancy Wood of the Knox County Community Health Coalition is very enthusiastic about the work she does with the Gardener Farmers’ Market.

These ladies shared with us their experiences engaging families in their communities through the local farmers’ market, including activity ideas, market-themes, and concepts like a “Kids’ Club” and a “Passport Program”. They talked about how they’d funded those projects and how they’d raised community support for their farmers’ markets. These women were all passionate about their markets, and about including children so that families can come and participate. It was really inspiring; I brought home lots of great ideas for the upcoming season at the Madison Farmers’ Market.

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Dr. Alfonso Morales of the University of Wisconsin in Madison gave a motivating keynote speech.

The keynote speaker at the convention was Dr. Alfonso Morales of the University of Wisconsin at Madison, Professor of Urban and Regional Planning. Dr. Morales also has a passion for farmers’ markets. He reminded us that historically, market places have been the root of social and economic life, and explained that markets have played a central role in forming society. Great markets of the past inspired trade, infrastructure, even modern law and policies. Dr. Morales pointed out that markets offer the opportunity for various government and non-profit groups to work together to achieve mutual goals.

During the annual meeting, MFFM unveiled their 1st Maine Farmers’ Market Annual Report, which they’d assembled using information collected during Snapshot Week back in August. If you’re not familiar with it, Snapshot Week was held during National Farmers’ Market Week, with more than 50 markets participating, including the Madison Farmers’ Market. The MFFM provided market managers with “tool-kits” that included shopper surveys and “I Love Farmers’ Markets” temporary tattoos. The information gathered during this week-long celebration enabled MFFM to gather data and put together this report which tells the story of the impact Maine’s farmers’ markets have on the state’s economy and their local communities.

I think Dr. Morales was inspired by the convention, he pointed out that not every state has an association like MFFM, or the strength. He went on to say,

This is a huge resource. You are that resource─the information you share with each other.

We really are blessed in Maine to have this strong and vibrant community of farmers and gardeners, and people who are dedicated to local food. That community isn’t confined to the halls of the conference center, I’ve found those kinds of people are everywhere in Maine if only you look for them, reach out to them, ask questions and participate. In general, Maine’s farmers are willing to share with you their knowledge, their experiences─stories of mishaps or success─and that’s what continues to grow Maine’s local food movement. That’s what makes it so inspiring and keeps people like me going even when the going is rocky. That is the heart of Maine and of our local food movement.

It’s a new year with new opportunities! Stay tuned folks!

Success at the Common Ground Fair

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Saturday, September 24th, was the day of my big talk over at MOFGA’s Common Ground Fair in Unity, Maine. In the weeks leading up to the fair I’d spent the majority of my time packing, and immediately following the fair I launched into the #greatfarmmove so there really wasn’t time to share the story of that day’s events. However, I know how much you’d appreciate the details of that day’s adventures so we’re going to back-pedal a little bit today.

Talking about bees in central Maine

honeybee on royal hybridI’ve been doing these kinds of presentations since 2012, when I first began teaching a basic beekeeping course as president of the Somerset Beekeepers through the University of Maine’s Somerset County Cooperative Extension in Skowhegan. I frequently accept invitations to speak with various groups or in local classrooms to further promote bees and pollinator conservation in the central Maine area. You’d think I’d be used to it by now, but the Common Ground Fair was a big step up from my local scene here in central Maine and I fully admit that I was both excited and frightened by the prospect of speaking at the Common Ground Fair.

Friends and co-workers were all supportive and reassuring, so I mustered some courage and plowed onward. I revamped one of my favorite power point presentations, dubbed it “Pollinator Conservation Through Agriculture” and offered up the information to colleagues at Johnny’s Selected Seeds in a dry-run. The presentation was well received, and after some final tweaking I was satisfied with my power point slide show.

One small hitch

Then─just days before my talk─I learned that I would not have access to a projector at the fair, which meant no power point presentation. Keep in mind that public speaking is not a gift that I was born with; it’s a skill that I have had to work at and with every presentation I get a little better at it. To overcome the natural anxiety that comes with opening oneself up in front of a group of strangers I have developed a number of tools to help me through and my power points with their high definition pictures, and their organized and bulleted lists of information are my primary instrument. Imagine the anxiety and the panic that flooded through me when I realized I would not have that resource!

Meanwhile, Amy over at Johnny’s had been busy making copies of a whole sheaf of handouts for me, including resources from the Xerces Society about how to minimize the risk of pesticides to pollinators, how to make nests for native bees, managing roadsides for bees and butterflies, and a full-color chart from the Michigan State University that displayed native plants that offer food and habitat for beneficial insects over the course of the entire growing season. All of these were loaded into a cardboard box that was just large and heavy enough to be awkward.

Yet another bump in the road

My slide show I decided to print onto cardstock─2 slides per page so that I could cut them in half and have large 5×7 cards, with easy-to-read text. Wouldn’t you know it, there I am on Friday afternoon─the day before my big talk─half-way through printing that carefully crafted slide-show and my printer runs out of ink!

I didn’t panic though; since the Call Center and offices are located in Fairfield, which is along the route to the Common Ground Fair, I just decided to stop by Johnny’s to print the rest of the slides. Potential catastrophe averted! Yay!

Once I had my cards with all of my notes and pictures I plugged “the Common Ground Fair” into my phone’s GPS and set out towards Unity with a mixture of anxiety and excitement pumping through my veins.

Meeting Eliot Coleman

I arrived at the fair early to check out the goings-ons, sat in on a talk called “What’s going on in the Maine Woods” given by a representative from the group RESTORE, and then loitered for a bit at the 2 different Johnny’s tents chatting with colleagues. It was during this period that I chanced to meet THE one and only Elliot Coleman of 4 Season Farm here in Maine and renown author of The New Organic Grower which has inspired countless new farmers and gardeners.

Working part-time in the Call Center at Johnny’s Seeds I’ve actually spoken with Eliot a couple of times on the phone and so I impulsively introduced myself and told him so, taking the opportunity to shake the man’s hand. Eliot was at the fair that day to give a talk in tandem with Adam Lemieux, Johnny’s official “tool-dude”, and we launched into a brief conversation─about bees of course─and the impact this beekeeper has had on Johnny’s. I hope next time I chance to catch Eliot on the phone he remembers who I am!

Standing room only!

At long last it was time for my presentation in the Railcar Speakers’ Tent and I trucked over with my notecards, bottles of water, and my box of professional-looking handouts. It was a little disconcerting to find the tent packed! When I’d sat in on the talk offered by the gentleman from the RESTORE group there had been a total of four of us sitting in the little canvas tent. That was not the case for my pollinators talk! Every chair was occupied and more folks stood at the back and off to the side to hear what I had to say!

Don’t get me wrong─I’m not so brazen as to think that all of these people came out to see li’l ol’ me. I know that they saw that I am affiliated with Johnny’s and that lent some credence to this obscure beekeeper from backwoods Maine. Yet, the fact that all of these people took time out of their day to learn more about how they can help pollinators at home, in their gardens, or on their farms tells me that there is a movement underway.

I am a Pollinator Conservationist

As I drove home that afternoon I couldn’t help feeling an immense sense of accomplishment and gratitude to have come so far. I think it’s safe to call myself a “pollinator conservationist“. I’m proud to be on the front lines of an environmental issue that touches almost all other environmental issues, for as a keystone species pollinators have a broad-spectrum impact on just about every ecosystem that exists upon this planet. Without pollinators 80% of flowering plants would not be able to reproduce; our world would be a very different place indeed.

People are becoming more and more aware of the plight facing bees and pollinators and they actually care. Whether out of concern for themselves, worried about the security of our food-systems which depend upon pollination services provided by animals and insects, or whether it’s for the love and beauty of nature─people sincerely want to take action and do what they can to help pollinators and save bees. That people care enough to do something about it is profoundly inspiring, and hugely motivating to me. You can be sure I will continue putting myself out there, sharing what I know in an effort to teach the public how they can help bees and pollinators RIGHT NOW.

Thanks for following along with my journey! Stay tuned, there are more adventures to come!

Talking pollinators at the Common Ground Fair

At 2pm on Saturday, September 24th I will be in Unity at MOFGA’s annual Common Ground Fair to give a talk Ive dubbed “Pollinator Conservation through Agriculture”. *Insert excited squeal here.*

pollinator conservation at common ground fairThere’s a decided interest from the public in pollinators, I’m excited to be able to say. You see it in the news, in the increasing numbers of backyard-beekeepers, at your local garden center, and we see it in the Call Center at Johnny’s Selected Seeds. The representatives who answer the phone there are getting more calls every year from gardeners and farmers wanting to grow plants for pollinators. People want to help, they want to raise pollinator-friendly plants that offer food and habitat for bees, and they want to reduce the risk of pesticide poisoning to bees.

I’m sure the fact that I’m a bee-nut was not the main reason Johnny’s hired me, lol. That was just an added bonus─or a peculiarity they decided was worth tolerating. Lol, I think I’ve grown on them though, they asked me to represent the company by giving a presentation at the Common Ground Fair. Can you believe it?!

Actually I think when Amy LeClaire first mentioned it to me I was horrified and flabbergasted: “But what will I talk about!?” This is a different scale of audience then the Somerset County 4H and the Madison or East Madison Grange. It’s not the Solon Summer Rec Program or the kindergarten class at the Carrabec Community School in North Anson. We’re talking about the Common Ground Fair─the fair of fairs, a revelry for sustainable living, a festival to pay homage to Maine’s agricultural roots.

Amy looked at me patiently, spreading her hands out before her as if the answer should be obvious and said, “Bees?”

Of course! Duh! So I dubiously said yes, I’d do it, and set about revamping one of my favorite presentations about pollinator conservation.

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Monarch butterflies are becoming more rare, but we had one at Runamuk this season.

This presentation first covers why bees and pollinators are in peril, and then discusses specific actions gardeners and farmers can take to benefit and even increase their local populations of pollinators. All of the information I present is garnered from credible sources such as the Xerces Society, the Pollinator Partnership, the NRCS, and more. I’ll throw in some personal anecdotes of my beekeeping misadventures along the way just to keep things interesting. Along with my presentation I’ll have lots of handouts available, as well as book and website recommendations for further learning.

It’s been 7 years since my first hive─when I was suddenly overcome by this fascination with pollinators. Come spend an hour with me, let me share with you my love for bees, and learn what you can do to support local pollinators in your backyard, in the garden or on the farm.

Mark your calendars or fair guides:

Pollinator Conservation Through Agriculture
Saturday, September 24th – 2pm at MOFGA’s Common Ground Fair in Unity, ME
Railcar Speakers’ Tent

Pollinator Conservation at MOFGA

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Keith said I had a glazed look in my eyes as we sat in the conference room at the MOFGA educational facility in Unity yesterday. I was high on the excitement and pure joy of participating in the Pollinator Conservation Planning Short-Course offered by the Xerces Society.

I first learned about the course last year when I was up to my neck in research, studying pollinators and how to promote them.  The Xerces Society offers a myriad of free resources and articles on their site, and I even went so far as to order their book “Attracting Native Pollinators”, which is an incredible resource.  They offer the short-course at locations around the country, but at the time there were no scheduled visits to Maine, so I submitted my name to their notification list and this year I got the word. Read more