Drop in sales threatens city farmers' market Dobbin Center stand may not reopen in '98

October 02, 1997|By Dana Hedgpeth | Dana Hedgpeth,SUN STAFF

The farmers say there are not enough customers.

The shoppers say there are not enough farmers.

So goes the Tuesday farmers' market at Dobbin Center off Route 175 in east Columbia, which will close three weeks early this year -- and possibly not return next year.

"It's the classic case of which comes first, the chicken or the egg," said Andy Schneider of Sykesville, a farmer who sells vegetables and fruit.

"When you've got enough vendors here to sell a variety of produce, that draws crowds of people. But the farmer has to know the people are there and that it's worth him loading up his truck and coming," Schneider said.

The market opened in May. Vendors said they rang up decent sales in midsummer. But in the past few weeks, they have reported selling less than $400 worth of goods each on market day -- compared with the 8-year-old market Thursdays at the Oakland Mills Village Center, where most of the 19 vendors make twice that amount.

In some cases, farmers said, they make as little as $100 at the Dobbin Center market, which is open from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m.

Linda Brown, a Glenelg produce grower, stopped coming to the market in the past few weeks after selling only 240 ears of corn. At the Oakland Mills market, she sells about 1,200 ears a day, she said.

"It's just gotten to be a vicious cycle in the past few weeks," Brown said. "There's been no vendors and no customers coming. It's just not worth loading up the truck and bringing down a load of produce that won't sell."

Low profits caused the number of farmers selling produce and goods to drop from 18 in May to six -- and sometimes fewer. Without farmers, organizers say, they will close the market at the end of this month, instead of the middle of next month. Without enough interest, it won't reopen next year.

"This year didn't prove to be as good of a turnout with customers as we had hoped," said Dolores Magnani, who runs the market. "This market never seemed to take off. We're going to have to look at it closely and re-evaluate for next year."

In one hour at the market this week, fewer than 20 people shopped the scattered tents and tables of cut flowers, tomatoes, apples, pumpkins and bread. Farmers tidied their displays, anxiously watching and waiting as shoppers across the parking lot hurried from their cars to the Kmart store or Upton's.

At Oakland Mills, traffic streams from the village center, making it a much-sought spot by farmers. But space allows no more than 20 vendors.

Though the number of vendors at Dobbin Center has dropped, those remaining are not making more money, they say.

"It's going terribly at Dobbin Center," said Tom Owens, who runs Cider Mill Farm in Elkridge. "Being far away from foot traffic has really hurt."

Harper's Choice renovation

Rouse Co. officials opened the Dobbin Center market after closing one at the Harper's Choice Village Center because of a multimillion-dollar renovation that includes a new, 55,000-square-foot Safeway store.

But agricultural specialists and farmers say the market may be too close to the Oakland Mills Farmers' Market two miles away to draw business. And many farmers complain that a $1,500 state grant spent promoting the Dobbin Center market in newspaper advertisements and signs did little.

Susan Fedors, 37, of Ellicott City shops at the Dobbin Center market almost weekly, but she said she has not noticed signs for the market.

"It's just underadvertised," Fedors said. "It's a great market, but you wouldn't know it's here unless you were coming here for something else."

From Route 175, one large state sign tells motorists of the market and a 2-foot-high brown sign at the shopping center entrance points to the tents and trucks at the opposite end of a parking lot from stores.

Agricultural specialists said it sometimes takes two to three years to establish a farmers' market. In the past few years, it has been tougher, organizers said, to get growers for markets because of the dwindling number of farms.

'New kid on the block'

This year, Maryland had 63 farmers' markets with about 500 producers from Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Delaware.

"The Dobbin Center market is the new kid on the block," said Tony Evans, who coordinates farmers' markets for the state Department of Agriculture.

The half-dozen farmers who still attend the Dobbin Center market said they want to come back next year as long as Rouse officials increase promotions.

"People want it to work because that's their livelihood," said Sue Ongert, who grows organic foods at Shaw Farms in Simpsonville. "It's just killing people how difficult it is to start up."

Pub Date: 10/02/97

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