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Growing Season: Food + Farms and the Fermentory that is Portland

A mild winter and warm spring means that the city's fruit trees are blossoming, and the farmers on the outskirts of the city have been hard at work preparing seedlings in their greenhouses. In two more weekends, the indoor farmers' market will close for the season. Meanwhile, an increasing number of farmers have begun setting up their tables again in Deering Oaks (Saturdays, 7 am to noon, beginning on April 28) and in Monument Square (Wednesdays, 7 am to 1 pm).

Since we moved to Maine a few years ago, my wife and I have bartered work for vegetables with our friends at the Snell Family Farm, which has been growing fruit and vegetables in Bar Mills for four generations.

I came to know the Snells by going to high school with their oldest daughter. But working for them at the Saturday farmers' market, I've come to meet some of their hundreds of customers, many of whom have been buying from the Snells for many years. They swap jokes and planting advice and recipes. It strikes me as an unusually personable relationship between a small business and their customers. And it's by no means unique to the Snell Family Farm: I see similar interactions happening at virtually every booth in the market. Eating is a social activity, and good food has a way of solidifying good relationships.

So because Portlanders care so much about good food, they also care a great deal about the people who provide the raw ingredients. For decades, the city has taken pride in the working waterfront that supplied the city's seafoods; now, there's a growing pride associated with the fields of Portland's working hinterlands.

Vestiges of yankee frugality and self-reliance helped these small businesses squeak through through the decades of globalization and corporate agribusiness. But to explain these enterprises' current success, more credit is due to a new, post-globalization desire (both among Portlanders, and among the people who choose to move to Portland) to have a closer and more honest relationship with the natural resources we rely on.

Local restaurants — from fine-dining establishments to taquerias to comfort-food diners — prominently list their farmers on their menus, and the farmers markets themselves have been attracting increasing numbers of customers over the past decade. Farmers are collaborating with chefs on equal footing in the city's increasingly serious food culture.

This week, while we wait for the last threats of frost to fade away and planting season to begin in earnest, SPACE Gallery is hosting their annual Food+Farm series, a collection of programs that highlight and celebrate local foods and farmers. Highlights this year include a screening of The Harvest / La Cosecha, a documentary about child migrant farm workers, a "Grow Fair" with events and workshops for gardeners, and a presentation from Daniel Klein, the producer of the Perennial Plate webseries.

Photo: Urban Farm Fermentory's window installation at SPACE Gallery. Photo by Christian MilNeil.

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