To Market, To Market

ROB KASPER'S MARYLAND

October 02, 1994|By ROB KASPER

BERLIN — Berlin--Market day in Berlin is Friday. Every Friday from early summer until the end of pumpkin season (the end of October), a handful of farmers wheels their trucks into a municipal parking lot just off Main Street and sells just-off-the-farm fruits and

vegetables. The market starts right after lunch, at 1 o'clock, and goes until the farmers sell out or it is supper time, whichever

comes first.

Unlike the sprawling farmers' markets in Baltimore and the surrounding suburbs, the one in this Eastern Shore town of about 2,600 is small, not too far from the fields, and full of farmers' chatter.

At the stand selling produce from Bennett's Farm, for instance, Jerry Rivkin doesn't just sell you white peaches, he brags on them. He invites you to touch them. These peaches, he says, are ripe when "they are softer than a mule's nose." He gives you a sample to taste, a Belle of Georgia, and indeed it is magnificent, especially when compared to the lowly state of most of Maryland's frost-afflicted crop.

You want to buy a basket of peaches, but Rivkin isn't so sure he is going to sell them to you. "You must promise," he says, "that you will never put these peaches in the refrigerator." Refrigeration, he warns, ruins the delicate constitution of the fruit. You, of course, agree and feel strangly grateful that you have been granted the privilege of buying what the man was selling.

Over behind Doug Jones' truck, he and his wife, Deneen, don't merely sell Silver Queen corn, they praise it. There are other varieties of corn, he says, but they are tricky to grow and attractive to the bugs.

And so Jones tells you he is "sticking with Silver Queen. It is a good long ear, and that is what people want."

The market also has the "pie ladies" -- women who sell home-baked goods. The proceeds go to local churches. The sales approach is polite, personal and insistent. "Won't you please buy this lady's apple pie," says one of two pie ladies sitting behind a card table. "She baked it just this morning, just for you." I settle for some of the ladies' pineapple zucchini bread, which is very good. Here in Berlin, folks have not forgotten how to bake.

This is the second season for the Berlin Farmers' Market. According to Tom Patton, one of the Berlin businessmen who helped get it going, the market has become something of a social center. "Of the 300-plus people who stop by there in an afternoon, about half are locals and half are tourists," he says. The local folks don't merely go to market to buy some squash; they also go for the conversation. Or, as Patton puts it, they enjoy "standin' around and jawin'."

For Patton, a native of Berlin who moved back to his hometown several years ago from the Philadelphia area, the Friday afternoon farmers' market is a revival of a tradition.

"At one time, about a generation or so back, Berlin and many other country towns had an active farmers' market," he says.

The market tradition in Berlin eventually died out, though, and wasn't revived until two years ago.

The current market draws people into town, Patton says, and that goes along with efforts to revitalize downtown Berlin. As part of that effort, Patton has bought and renovated the town's Globe Theatre. "It was the place I saw my first movie," he explains. "I think it was something called 'The Two-Fisted Sheriff.' " Now Patton's daughter Kate manages the 80-seat theater, where she puts on concerts of folk, blues and British Isles music.

Patton, who is 61, sees a connection between the demise of the old farmers' markets and the Shore's once-thriving canning industry. He remembers when canning houses were as much a part of the Eastern Shore landscape as fields of corn and tomatoes. But then, in the late 1960s, the canneries began closing and soon the truck farms that served them were gone as well.

The basic reasons the canneries left the Eastern Shore were economic, says Tony Evans of the Maryland Department of Agriculture. Rather than deal with small, local packers, the canning industry began operating on a national scale. And Maryland's short growing season and older packing plants looked like bad investments to corporate accountants who preferred to put money into newer operations in states such as Texas and Colorado.

Now, the revived farmers' markets are one of the few vestiges of the Eastern Shore's vegetable-laden past. In addition to the Friday market in Berlin, there are also summer and fall farmers' markets operating in Ocean City on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and in Salisbury on Saturdays.

October is a slower time, a so-called "shoulder season," for the Berlin market. The summer crops of peaches and corn are gone. But there are some pumpkins and a few other fall crops to sell. After they're gone, the market will close down. It will reopen next summer, on a Friday.

The town merchants seem to like market day because it draws a crowd. The customers seem to like it because they get fresh produce, at a pretty good price.

As for the farmers, Jones seems to sum up their view. "It is a good deal," he says, "as long as it doesn't rain."

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