The Vegetable Boat
One small boat brings the bounty of summer to Maine’s island inhabitants.
By Susan Sherrill Axelrod
Photograph by Ted Axelrod
On Pratts Island, a flip-flop clad crowd scans the Sheepscot River, watching for the bare wooden masts of the unusual sailboat putt-putting its way across from Five Islands. The sight is their signal to gather on the dock, canvas shopping bags in hand, to await the arrival of David Berry and his floating farmer’s market — what island residents call “the vegetable boat.”
Berry slips the thirty-four-foot Beth Alison through the narrow mouth of Cosy Harbor and deftly lands at the Pratts Island dock. In a weathered baseball cap and wire-rimmed glasses, a welcoming smile creasing his grey-bearded face, he greets his customers as they line up to purchase farm-fresh and handmade foods: perfectly ripe tomatoes, candy-striped beets, sugar snap peas, pies, pickles, and luscious local goat cheese rolled with fresh dill. Nibbling on a snap pea, he tells a somewhat awed first-timer what to do with garlic scapes, answers questions about how long the artichoke pesto will keep, and banters easily with regulars. It is 11 a.m., and Cosy Harbor is the third of eight stops Berry will make today on his weekly route.
Before dawn on market days in July and August, Berry heads from his Merrymeeting Farm in Bowdoinham to the Robinhood Marina on Georgetown Island. Several hours later, he has fully stocked the wide, flat-bottomed Beth Alison with fresh produce, buckets of bright flowers, chickens (from Mainely Poultry in Warren), oysters (from Pemaquid Oyster Company), goat cheeses (from York Hill Farm in New Sharon), sauces and pesto (from Rosemont Market in Portland), and a variety of baked goods. With a couple of helpers in tow, Berry sets off on his saltwater route, stopping first at MacMahan Island and Five Islands harbor before crossing the Sheepscot to make a loop around Southport Island.
“If everything goes well and I can get through the Southport Bridge at 3 or 3:30 I get back to the marina at about 5,” says Berry. “And that’s a day that begins at 4:30 a.m. It’s always been a long day, whether it was twenty years ago or today because you have to get a real early start to get everything ready to go.”
Berry, who also directs Bowdoinham’s recycling program, and his wife, Alison, grow much of the produce sold from the boat on their farm, which has been in Berry’s family since the 1930s. Mesclun salad mix comes from Goranson Farm in Dresden and berries from various nearby sources. Alison also assembles the bouquets of garden flowers, puts up the chutneys and jams, and bakes most of the sweet treats, including her famous sticky buns. Pies are supplied by another local baker.
Despite her historic appearance, the Beth Alison was built on Chebeague Island in 1981 as an authentic replica of a New Haven sharpie, boats used to harvest oysters in Long Island Sound in the late 1800s. The original owner gave it to the Maine Maritime Museum in Bath, which having tried unsuccessfully to sell the boat, looked for a place to store it. Through a friend at the museum, it wound up in Berry’s chicken barn.
“I took one look at it, and I said, ‘I’ll store that boat for you, in the river,’ ” says Berry, who quickly put it to its intended use — oysters he farmed were among the first products marketed from onboard. “I would go to Christmas Cove and Heron Island and then I went to Squirrel Island, and I just picked up more stops.”
The market boat melds Berry’s strong ties to both the land and the sea. Growing up on tidal Merrymeeting Bay, he was “messing around in boats” from an early age.
“I had the boat, and I had the [goods],” says Berry. “I’d been down the peninsulas delivering poultry from my parents’ farm when I was a teenager, and I knew that the people in those places — and on the islands — didn’t have good access to fresh produce. It was a wonderful combination, pulling my interests together into another enterprise.”
For twelve years, Berry made his runs twice a week, but decided to drop his original Damariscotta River route last summer. “I hated to do it because they were my original customers,” he says.
One of Berry’s oldest customers is Sam Hayward, a fellow resident of Bowdoinham and chef/owner of Portland’s acclaimed Fore Street. Hayward first bought produce, chickens, and oysters from Berry thirty years ago; the two men and their families subsequently became close friends.
“All summer long we have a succession of things that come out of David’s farm — beets, onions, carrots — and I think everybody in my family has done at least a shift on the market boat,” says Hayward, who supported local farms through his restaurants long before it became a trend.
“I could take anything I had, and he would always buy it,” says Berry of the symbiotic relationship that began when Hayward had his first restaurant in Brunswick. “All the small tomatoes I grow go to Fore Street because he prefers small tomatoes — they make a delicious tomato tart with puff pastry appetizer.” The tart is a longstanding favorite on Fore Street’s summer menu.
Hayward admires not only his friend’s fine-quality produce, but also the native-born knowledge, commitment, and sensibility that make Berry’s vegetable boat more than just a picturesque novelty for summer visitors.
“He will make use of resources in a variety of different ways, adjusting to different conditions, to supply and demand, eking out a living in the way Yankees have for generations,” says Hayward. “It’s part of his DNA.”