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

Bumper Crop, a program of the Maine Federation of Farmers’ Markets, allows employers to acquire gift certificates for their employees to spend on fresh local food at farmers’ markets across 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 are coming up with or looking for ways to give employees new pathways to wellness, and it’s a solution that’s also helping Maine’s economy, he said.

“We are in a tight labor market and we work in stressful environments,” he said. “Employers are happy to give them to employees.”

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

Based on the survey questions, the federation knows that those who traded the certificates also spent their own money on the markets. That equates to somewhere between $56,000 and $80,000 in incremental cash sales, DeBiasi said.

“Mainers generally appreciate local food and enjoy supporting local farms,” he said. “The convenience of the modern grocery store is that it operates almost 24/7. Many of us get used to being able to shop whenever we want, but that’s getting at the expense of buying local.

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

Membership of Bumper Crop is free to employers and farmers’ markets, although the federation will likely develop a revenue model to keep the program sustainable. Employers only pay for the certificates that their employees redeem on the markets.

The federation quickly realized the immense value of the program after a pilot project 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 pastries at a farmers market.
Biggi co-owners Miki Macdonald, left, and Myer Taskel talk to customers at the Bangor Farmers Market on October 27, 2019. Credit: Natalie Williams/BDN

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

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

Theriault thinks more employees see the state of the current economy as another factor, and certificates can really help pay grocery bills, she said.

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

After Bangor signed with 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 hit, so she focused on developing the program before an official launch in 2021, DeBiasi said.

A family walks through a farmers market.
Salem Taylor, foreground, and his mother, Magy Taylor, talk about the working bee at Jillson’s Farm Stand at the Lewiston Farmers’ Market, Sunday, Aug. 15, 2021, in Lewiston, Maine. Her sister Summer Taylor is unsure of the bee as she cuddles with their father, Mike Hubble. Credit: Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal via AP

He used portions of a $160,000 grant from the US Department of Agriculture’s Farmer’s Market Promotion Program to create a website, branding and promotional materials. Funding is also used for printing certificates and materials, collecting and analyzing data, and paying 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’s not aware of another statewide program like Bumper Crop.

This year, with 47 registered employers, the federation hopes to see workers redeem $75,000 in certificates, DeBiasi said. About $110,000 is in circulation, that is, in the hands of employers or already distributed to employees to spend in markets.

Some employers give the certificates to customers and use them for other reasons, such as Lee Auto Malls, which has 16 auto dealerships statewide. For the second year, the company donated more than $15,000 in bumper crop certificates to Maine Public, which gave them to donors of the membership campaign.

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

Marisic visited a market in Yarmouth that was new to her thanks to the program, and she thinks it encourages employees to visit several in their area, as they take place on different days and times.

“As a company, we’ve been working to provide a really strong benefits program for our staff, and this was one more program we could add that provided healthy local food for our team while supporting our farmers and our eating habits,” 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.