It was 7:07 am, and the first customer of the day had arrived at the Fruit of the Forest Mushroom Farm stand in Portland’s Deering Oaks.
Linda Boentgen peered over the colorful boxes of medleys, a $10 sampling of seven different varieties grown in the farm’s warehouse on Riverside Street. She took her pick and handed $20 to Alex Booth. She planned to saute the orange and pink and white mushrooms later.
“This is where I shopped during the pandemic,” Boentgen said of the farmers market. “From a food point of view and an emotional point of view, they were my deal.”
Wednesday was the opening day of the outdoor Portland Farmers’ Market, a sure sign of warmer times to come. It was also the first time Fruit of the Forest set up its green pop-up tent on the winding road through the city park. Through November, more than 30 farms will come to the twice-weekly market to sell fruits, vegetables, flowers and seedlings, meats, honey, dairy, oysters (the seafood variety), oysters (the mushroom variety) and more.
Booth used to forage for wild mushrooms before he and his childhood friend Ethan Curtis started growing them in a basement two years ago. They launched the farm last fall and sold mushrooms at a few winter markets, building a group of regular customers and meeting other vendors.
Their outdoor debut in Portland promised to be cold and wet, an all-too-typical April day in Maine, but they were energized when they met at their warehouse at 6 am to load up their market wares and deliveries to local restaurants. Inside are two black grow tents designed for cannabis and repurposed for mushrooms, and a peek through the windows revealed shelves of them at various states of growth in the humid interior.
“I like to think of it as one big science project,” Curtis said.
The park was quiet when they arrived at 6:30 am The day’s rain hadn’t started, but the spring grass was verdant from overnight showers. Other vendors were setting up tents and tables, and Fruit of the Forest found its designated spot at the end of the row.
The sky was gray, but the road was soon full of color. There were fuchsia and white breakfast radishes from Tiny Acres Farm in Pittsfield, cut yellow daffodils from Meadowood Farm in Yarmouth, orange and purple edible flowers from Goranson Farm in Dresden, bags of greens and trays of seedlings at multiple stands.
‘PREPARE FOR EVERYTHING’
Booth and Curtis had an early morning, but not as early as many of the other farmers who traveled greater distances to Portland. Heather Donahue of Balfour Farm got up at 3:30 am to drive from Pittsfield with her selection of cheeses, yogurts and other dairy products. Her farm has been part of the market for 10 years, and the cold drizzle did n’t faze her when it started.
“You’ve gotta prepare for everything,” she said. “We’ve encountered everything from torrential deluge to 95 degree weather.”
She was set up next to a newer vendor, Kelby Young of Olde Haven Farm in Chelsea, who started at the Portland market last year. Young stood behind his array of meats and pickled vegetables and gave a woman instructions for lamb meatballs.
“The customers here are so dedicated to shopping with the farms,” Young said. And it’s a good thing, too. “Markets are, like, 65 percent of our income.”
Carl Johanson of Goranson Farm said he has noticed more customers at the markets since the start of the pandemic.
“In the very beginning, people didn’t want to go inside and that changed purchasing habits,” he said.
At Fruit of the Forest, Booth and Curtis arranged small boxes of medleys and big ones of large flushes (clusters of a single mushroom variety). The two have been friends since they were 5 years old growing up in Winslow.
Two years ago, Booth was selling furniture and Curtis was working at a post office. Booth got into foraging because he wanted to learn more about wild foods and get away from packaged items. Curtis had never eaten wild mushrooms before – “I was like, you ca n’t eat that,” he said – but he learned he liked them. When they went into business together, their first sale was to a friend’s mom, a loyal customer who bought $20 worth of mushrooms every week, but their model now relies on local restaurants who source their products.
Mona Grandbois of Biddeford didn’t want to squish the delicate mushrooms in her market bag, so she stopped at their table last.
“I’m so happy to see mushrooms offered like this,” she said. “I take walks and I see them and I think, ‘Will I die if I eat this?’”
EDUCATION PART OF THE PROCESS
Some customers are familiar with the mushrooms and walk right up to order a pound of blue oyster. But much of what Booth and Curtis do is educate shoppers on how to use their purchases. The lion’s mane takes on a texture like crab and can be made into cakes, Booth explained, and the long stem on the chestnuts gets a little crunchy, like lightly cooked asparagus. The king trumpets? Cut the meaty stem into pieces for vegetarian scallops (although Booth likes to wrap his in bacon).
Lauri Boxer-Macomber was cycling through the market when she braked in front of the mushrooms.
“Catch your eye?” Curtis asked.
“I was thinking of buying flowers for someone, but why not mushrooms?” she said. (It was Administrative Professionals Day.) She bought two boxes and fit them both into her bag before she pedaled on.
Interstate 295 hummed in the background and the rain came down harder on the tent, but those noises couldn’t drown out the sound of a drummer under an umbrella at the far end of the market. Curtis left to deliver boxes of mushrooms to local restaurants, and then he came back to do his own shopping, trading a couple of the last medley boxes for greens and buying raw milk from Maggie’s Farm at Mulberry Creek, the neighboring stand and another new vendor , from Bowdoinham.
They packed up at 1 pm, interrupted twice by final customers.
“Oh, boy,” Curtis said, dodging the water Booth shook from the green tent.
“It’ll be dry by next week,” Booth said hopefully.
Police identify man shot dead on Woodford Street, but give no other details