Freeport farmers find their niche with the 'veggie boat'

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CHEBEAGUE ISLAND — It’s 11 o’clock on a Saturday morning in July, and already a line has formed next to a teal and white boat docked at the Chebeague Island Boat Yard.

A red and blue “OPEN” flag flutters on the boat’s stern, and a white tent shades coolers and boxes full of lettuce, tomatoes, bacon and broccoli. On the dock, Chebeague residents and visitors chat and try to catch the attention of Warren and Ursula Wilmot, or Olivia LeMaistre, who hurry back and forth between the produce and the cash box.

The farmers grow most of what’s on the boat in Freeport at Mitchell Ledge Farm, which is known for its herd of Belted Galloway’s, or “Oreo” cows. Instead of having a table at a terrestrial farmer’s market, the three farmers decided to rename themselves “Lettuce by Land, Carrots by Sea,” and sail their produce to Chebeague and Bustin’s islands in Casco Bay.

And based on the crowd that gathers nearly every week, they seem to have made the right decision.

“It’s hoppin’,” remarked Virginia Gaskins, who arrived early with her mother, Susan, to snatch up bacon, cabbage, cheese and chard. On Fourth of July weekend the veggie boat was cleaned out less than an hour after arriving, so Gaskins said she arrived early this time.

She thinks the boat’s success is partially due to the fact that there aren’t a lot of places to buy local, organic produce on Chebeague. “You have to go to the mainland for (that),” she said.

Susan Stranahan, who picked up some garlic scapes, tomatoes and bacon, agreed.

“You either do without, or go to the mainland,” she said of the way it used to be. But now, every Saturday morning during the summer, the produce comes to her.

Stranahan also attributed the floating farmer’s market’s success to the crowd it draws.

“It’s a social event,” she said.

The Saturday morning hustle and bustle has also been beneficial for Vicki Todd, who manages The Niblic, a cafe, market and gift shop at the Chebeague Island Boat Yard.

She said when the farmers called her up last year and asked if they could dock at the boat yard, she was immediately interested. Veggie boat customers walk right past her shop on the way down to the dock, and many stop in for a coffee on the way.

“It’s mutually beneficial,” she said.

After about an hour, the crowd dies down and the farmers relax a little. The strawberries are long gone, as are the sticky buns and baguettes supplied by Standard Baking Co. in Portland. A few bunches of radishes, scapes and bouquets of flowers remain.

Warren Wilmot, 29, runs up to the Niblic to buy a pint of chowder, and LeMaistre, 31, packs the remaining veggies back into their coolers. Ursula Wilmot, 29, crawls under the tarp at the front of the boat to check on her sleeping infant son.

All three grew up in Freeport. Ursula Wilmot and LeMaistre are sisters whose parents run the cattle operation at Mitchell Ledge Farm. They had always toyed with the idea of taking over the farm, but didn’t want to concentrate on cattle. With Warren, Ursula’s husband, they decided to start a small vegetable farm and offer a few produce shares to community members.

But they weren’t convinced they could compete with the myriad of other small farms at local farmer’s markets. Islands, they decided, could be a niche market.

“At a farmer’s market we don’t have much to offer, but on a boat, we’re different,” LeMaistre said.

Warren Wilmot happens to work at a boat yard in South Freeport, and the women inherited a 1948 wooden launch from their grandparents. They outfitted it with a tent, and last summer, made their maiden voyage to Bustin’s and Chebeague.

“The boat was a huge question mark,” LeMaistre said, but almost immediately it became clear that the floating farmer’s market would be a hit. Vicki Todd said her customers at the Niblic had been asking all spring when the veggie boat was coming back.

Already the trio is thinking of expanding their service to other Casco Bay islands, and they’d like to increase the size of their eight-member Community-Supported Agriculture group. But for this summer, they’re sticking with the two islands they already serve, and trying to increase the amount of produce they provide.

Still, islanders would be wise to get to the dock early.

“I wish we got here at 11,” said Joan Hilton, a Concord, Mass., resident who was renting a house on Chebeague, “because we missed the strawberries.”

Emily Guerin can be reached at 781-3661 ext.123 or Follow her on Twitter:@guerinemily.

Sidebar Elements

The Lettuce by Land, Carrots by Sea floating farmer’s market draws a crowd at the Chebeague Island Boat Yard.

Olivia LeMaistre, Ursula Wilmot and Warren Wilmot pose with their produce at the Chebeague Island Boat Yard after another successful Saturday morning sale.

Chebeague Island resident Susan Stranahan ponders the produce as farmer Olivia LeMaistre talks to a customer.

Ursula and Warren Wilmot fill a customer’s bag with vegetables they grew themselves at the Saturday morning floating farmer’s market.

Warren Wilmot watches as Ursula Wilmot hands a bag of veggies to Peter Hilton, who is vacationing on Chebeague Island.

A crowd gathers beside the Lettuce by Land, Carrots by Sea floating farmer’s market on Saturday morning at the Chebeague Island Boat Yard.