To market, to market Civic organizers bring the farm to Highlandtown

June 14, 1991|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Evening Sun Staff

OF COURSE, DIANE MARIANOS jokes, the buxom farm girl would have been the perfect logo for the new Highlandtown farmers' market. But, local tastes notwithstanding, she settles for the alternative -- Painter Grant Wood's American Gothic farm couple, superimposed in front of the Highlandtown clock tower, with the theme: "We're bringing the farm to Highlandtown."

At a recent meeting in a drab walk-up office on Eastern Avenue, Marianos, the proprietor of a local beauty salon and coordinator of the Highlandtown Merchants Association, hashes out the logo and other final market details with Pat McMillan, a Maryland Department of Agriculture marketing specialist, and Maryland Cooperative Extension Service agent Jon Traunfeld. Also in attendance are youth worker Bob Hooey and Frank Littles, merchant association maintenance man.

Blond, tough, with fingernails blooming fuchsia, Marianos, 42, is 100 percent Highlandtown and proud of it. As she tells the story, the birth of the Highlandtown farmers' market, which opens tomorrow at 9 a.m. at 3700 Fleet St., came about after a chance meeting with local activist John Cain. During their conversation, they decided such a market would be "great for the community, a boost for the business district and something everyone could participate in for the whole family." And, it was "something that wasn't commercial."

In the past 10 years, the number of farmers' markets has doubled in the state, according to the Maryland Department of Agriculture. The collective need for a community to convene someplace other than a mall, the desire for fresh produce, and the spectacle of gregarious vendors, their colorful wares, babies gumming apples, and a rainbow coalition of customers, have all contributed to the popularity of seasonal markets.

Drawing from local neighborhoods and beyond, tailgate markets where farmers back into a lot and open their truck for business -- as well as permanent markets, have become a natural ritual for thousands of Marylanders.

Bringing the farm to Highlandtown, Marianos has discovered, is a complex enterprise. Rules governing the market had to be determined; unlike most markets, it will feature only products produced by the farmers themselves. Permits, vendors, publicity, the participation of local non-profit groups, special events, merchant discount coupon books, sidewalk sales, the July grand opening, appointment of local market masters to manage the market were just a few of the things that also had to be addressed.

But the market fell quickly into place. For one, it made sense. East Baltimore's dense population -- 70,000 within the two-mile radius of Highlandtown and Canton -- made the community an ideal location for a farmers' market.

In addition, existing grocery stores did not provide members of East Baltimore's diverse ethnic community with the fresh produce they often drove a long distance for, Marianos says. "Greeks use nothing but fresh; they don't buy anything in a can . . . A lot people were excited they won't have to go far. They will be able to walk or drive a short distance" to the new market.

The market would also belong to the community. "People in this area have a thing about, 'It's mine.' They think they're special," Marianos says, speaking for herself and all East Baltimoreans.

At the meeting, the list of participating farmers and bakers ifinalized. A third bakery that has signed on is cause for concern. McMillan is not worried. "Bakeries are a big draw to a market," he says.

"What fish man we gonna have, hon?" Marianos asks McMillan. This is undecided. He tells of one possibility, a man who sells his wares from a tank of live trout. And of another who is real "excited about getting involved with tailgate markets."

Marianos is concerned about no-show farmers, and the ragged look it could give the market. Set up a policy among participants, McMillan recommends: "If you're not going to be here, call the person next to you."

It is also important to arrange vendors creatively, so that "we don't have a bunch of fruit growers staring at each other across the aisle," McMillan says.

And, "don't feel like you've got to do everything at the opening," he says. "If it evolves, you're gonna have people knocking on your door."

The market is scheduled to open at 9 a.m., a little later than others around town. "A lot of people work all night," Marianos explains.

McMillan sees tailgate markets as a way to keep farming alive in a time when cultivated acres are diminishing swiftly. The farmers' markets proliferating in Maryland are "helping people get their foot in the door: those who are new, who want to get into agriculture. And it's helping people who have been in farming for years, who now see a need to diversify and bring in some new revenues," he says.

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