To market, to market!

UP FRONT

Produce: Fresh fare at farmers' markets appeals to the senses -- and a sense of nostalgia.

June 24, 1999|By Sandra Crockett | Sandra Crockett,Sun Staff

Saturday morning at the market, and the dandelion greens are looking good. Ditto for the radishes, kale and those mighty fine, plump tomatoes. MlDoesn't matter that the sky is cloudy and rain is likely. It's time to shop. Outside. At the market. MlPeople from all over Maryland spend an hour or so going from stall to stall, gathering fresh produce for their week's meals.

Yet, it's more than the prospect of getting those extra-fresh veggies that draws people to farmers' markets. For some, it's the nostalgia that the markets kindle, the ambience and the pleasures of mingling with friends.

Gladys Roberts, 67, was searching for a crucifer vegetable called rape at the 32nd Street Farmers' Market. And she found it. Roberts is at the market just about every week, choosing vegetables for her meals.

"I grew up in the neighborhood," says Roberts, who now lives in the Windsor Hills area in Baltimore. "It's a good feeling coming here. Every Saturday, it's like coming home."

John Rush, 61, has his own reasons for shopping at farmers' markets, something he has been doing for about 20 years. "The food is fresher here," he says. "And I live in the neighborhood." Rush's bounty this day includes kale and squash.

Most farmers' markets are seasonal, open from late spring through the fall. And farmers' markets -- such as the one on 32nd Street -- offer more than vegetables. There are bakery goods, live crabs and cut flowers.

Sometimes it seems people come to farmers' markets simply for an afternoon of fresh air and lunch.

Della Malone, 64, was enjoying a portobello mushroom sandwich purchased at the market and proclaimed it "delicious."

She also enjoyed picking up locally grown vegetables, among other things. "If you like to garden, this is a good place to be," she says, pointing to a stand with lush green plants.

Farmers' markets can also be places to find things that are, some might say, a bit offbeat.

At a small stand called "The Positive Place," Queen Kujichagulia does a good business selling vegetarian sandwiches and healthy desserts. The BBQ veggie delight simmers in a large pot by her side.

"Well, to be honest, it's tofu," she says of the veggie delight. "But, you know, people have such a preconceived notion against tofu. But it tastes great. I have won over some serious meat eaters who tried it."

Nearby, Joan Norman is doing a rousing business at her organic vegetable stand.

She may not know all her customers by name, but she is familiar with them in other ways.

"There's the salad man. And there's the flower woman. And you see that older lady there? She is here every week buying dandelion greens. And every week she tells us that we charge her too much," Norman says. "We give her another bunch. Then she kisses us on the cheek. Just like clockwork."

Norman and her husband, Drew, own One Straw Farm in White Hall. Each Saturday for the past 10 years, Joan and her helpers have been at the market bagging vegetables and plants for customers.

For the Normans, the business all begins a relatively long way from the 32nd Street Farmers' Market.

"We raise nearly 100 acres of vegetables," Drew Norman says. Organic produce, he says, is much more available at the market now than in the past. "There's so much more organic produce in the market now. The quality has to be better," he says.

They are glad to have a presence at the market.

"It's a great market," Drew Norman says. "There are so many different kinds of people there. We are able to sell bushels of kale and collards but also froufrou things, like salad mix."

Farmers' markets are becoming so popular with the public, often there aren't enough farmers willing to staff them, says Tony Evans, farmers' market coordinator for the Maryland Department of Agriculture.

"We anticipate having 67 this year," Evans says.

The largest farmers' market in the state is in downtown Baltimore, under the Jones Falls Expressway at Holliday and Saratoga streets. "And they no longer have a waiting list of farmers waiting to get in," the coordinator says.

Selling at a farmers' market takes research and planning but may not be as complicated as one might think.

"Most people don't understand," Evans says. "You can get into growing for the farmers' market without a huge amount of land and without a huge amount of machinery. But you would need intensive management."

Evans tells of a woman, now deceased, who had less than 2 acres where she grew flowers. "She was grossing about $40,000 a year," Evans says. "And it was a hobby for her."

For customers, markets offer face-to-face contact.

"You can walk into a farmers' market and find a lot of different types of tomatoes and can ask, 'Can you tell me about these tomatoes?' " Evans says. "Or you can come up to a vendor and ask: 'Do you use pesticides? And what kind?' "

Certainly, it would not be a farmers' market without the farmers. But that is only half the story. "I'm not so sure it's the farmers that make the market," Joan Norman says. "It's really the customers that make the farmers' market."

Actually, it's both.

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