On a Saturday morning,? cars fill every nook and cranny of parking space surrounding the weekly farmers market in Deering Oaks. Some shoppers with empty tote bags and rolling carts begin browsing through the stalls, stands, trays and tables of three dozen local vendors as early as 7 a.m.
Carolyn Snell and her two-person crew from Snell Family Farm in Buxton were here, parked smack dab in the middle of the market at 5:30 a.m. With their truck as a backdrop, they’ve spent a good hour and a half laying out the cornucopia of fruit, veggies and cut flowers in colorful displays to attract the hordes that will soon descend upon the park. By 7, they’re ready for the crowd of customers who will ooh and ah at the monster leeks, inquire about the sweet dumpling and delicata squashes, and scoop up the princess beans and fingerling potatoes before they’re gone well before the market closes at noon.
Since Travel and Leisure Magazine named Portland one of the top 10 farmers markets in the nation last April, and CBS News followed up with a segment on several Portland-area farmers in August, the word is out and business is booming here. And the Snell Family Farm, which was one of the original vendors when the Portland market moved to Deering Oaks in 1980, is working to take full advantage of it.
“When it (the Portland farmers market at Deering Oaks) first started, it looked like it would soon roll over and die” says John Snell, Jr., whose grandfather began the Snell family farm in 1926. “The (growth) makes it exciting and competitive.”
“There’s a huge foodie culture in Portland and they are interested in unusual, specialty vegetables,” says Carolyn Snell, 26, a fourth-generation farmer who grew up working beside her mom and dad on the family farm. “We keep adjusting our product mix to keep up with trends.”
But while there are more customers to be had, there also is more competition among growers. The farmers market has expanded from a handful of farmers in 1980, when the Snells began, to 36 vendors now and a waiting list with more than a dozen names on it. The Snell Family Farm also participates in the open air market on Saturday mornings in Saco and the Monument Square farmers market in Portland every Wednesday.
While Carolyn says she is “definitely not in charge – and that’s good,” her creativity and her energy are helping the Snell Family Farm keep pace with the competition. She and her mother Ramona are always “ordering and trying out new things, seed-wise,” according to her father.
“We’re so glad she wants to be involved,” he says, noting that Carolyn also keeps the website and Facebook pages updated and full of information, pictures and many unique and yummy-sounding recipes.
“A lot of people ask what they can do with a particular squash or other vegetable,” says Carolyn, explaining the variety of recipes on the site for such things as Scottish rumblethumps, roasted beets, squash lasagna, and her own winter chowder.
“Some I’ve tweaked from other people’s recipes,” she says. “But the roasted beets is definitely my own.”
One of the decisions the Snells have made in response to competition is not to go organic, like so many of the vendors that surround them.?Carolyn says they tried growing some products organically 10 years ago but struggled to maintain the quantity and quality their customer base relied upon them for.
“You could lose your whole crop of tomatoes like so many farmers did last summer,” she says. “We need to be able to keep going.”
While Carolyn acknowledges that there probably are some market browsers who pass their stand because they don’t have the organic label, she knows that their customer base understands they use no commercial fertilizers and as little pesticide as possible.
“They know we aren’t pumping them full of chemicals,” she says. “We’re a pretty sustainable model.”
If there’s a segment of the family business that Carolyn can call her own, it’s growing and arranging the cut flowers. While her Aunt Louise is still involved in the growing, Carolyn is in charge of event planning. She meets with customers who want to use local flowers in their weddings and other events. She says the event planning can be stressful at times, but is an exciting part of the business. She seems genuinely pleased that a growing number of brides actually think about supporting the local economy on their big day – instead of having flowers shipped in from other countries.
Carolyn graduated from the College of the Atlantic (but studied painting, art and writing – not agriculture).?Despite that, she calls farming her career, as well as an intellectual and physically exhausting pursuit.
“It’s quite a puzzle to plan it all out,” she says. “I love growing food and helping make those decisions.”
Carolyn Snell works at the Wednesday farmers market in Portland’s Monument Square. “I love growing food,” says the fourth-generation farmer.A daily newspaper reporter for many years, she is now well into her second career, English teacher at Bonny Eagle High School.