Raising a crop of loyal patrons

Far-flung customers travel to shop at area farmers' markets

`A tradition in Carroll'

June 25, 2000|By Liz F. Kay | Liz F. Kay,SUN STAFF

The farmers know they're coming.

Before the sun is high in the sky, they arrive, swarming over everything in their path - lettuce, strawberries, pies, potholders.

"They know the early bird gets the cream of the crop," said Anita Bullock, co-manager of the Carroll County Farmers' Market in Westminster, held Saturdays throughout the summer at the Agricultural Center.

It's not the casual shopper who arrives as early as 7 a.m. It's the hard-core, die-hard farm market fans who meet and greet the many vendors - and the vegetables - well before the standard opening at 8 a.m.

Take Anne and Ron Kyker of Westminster, who also satisfy their farm market habit by attending the farmers' market in downtown Westminster."[Ron] was still drinking his coffee when I said, `Let's go!'" Anne Kyker said, referring to a recent morning trip to the Agricultural Center.

Or Faye Hackey, who drives about 20 miles from her Gaithersburg home to the Carroll County Farmers' Market two or three times every summer to stock her freezer with fresh vegetables.

Going to farmers' markets "is a tradition in Carroll County," said Jean Christensen of Westminster, a frequent customer at local markets. People meet their neighbors and talk to vendors they've patronized for years, creating an atmosphere not unlike that of a town square.

"It's what keeps the community growing," said Kathy Bollinger, a customer from Manchester.

Demand exceeds supply

Carroll County has five farmers' markets - in Mount Airy, Westminster, Sykesville and South Carroll. The number of farmers' markets in Maryland has tripled to 67 since 1990, said Tony Evans, coordinator of farmers' market programs for the Maryland Department of Agriculture.

"Now we have more demand for farmers' markets than we have farmers to supply them," he said.

Carroll's markets range in size from five to 45 vendors. Some markets might boast fewer than usual this year, because last summer's drought shook farmers' confidence in their crop yields.

"They're just leery," said Ron Jackson, manager of the Sykesville market. "It's been difficult for them to commit."

That might be bad news for the people lured from supermarkets by hopes of fresh-picked produce.

"I'm sure that's fresh, but I know this is fresher," said Judi Brown of Marriottsville, who frequents the Sykesville market.

During corn season, "we pick it that morning at 5:30 a.m.," said Wendy Plank, co-manager of the Carroll County Farmers' Market and a vendor. "You're talking about corn that's two hours old."

Emphasis on `local'

Customers also like to support area farmers.

Grocery stores "say they buy local, but local to them is within 500 miles of here," Plank said. "It's not local like in your town of Westminster."

Customers are drawn by more than produce. At some markets, you can walk away with a loaf of bread, a bouquet of flowers or a blanket, as well as locally grown fruits and vegetables.

It pays to arrive early, especially if you want to buy a local treat, such as the Jewish apple cake made by Jane Sussman of Westminster. She has sold baked goods at the Carroll County Farmers' Market for almost as long as the market has existed. In its 29th year, the market is the second oldest in the state.

She occasionally sells out of her delicacy by 9 a.m., but will hold cakes for customers who ask her to do so. She regularly holds cakes for some customers who travel from as far as Virginia.

You'll find more than vegetable staples at some markets. Organic and exotic fruits and vegetables, such as green zebra tomatoes and tomatillos, can be found at some Carroll County markets.

Greg Thorne sells curly basil and Siam dragon pepper plants to stand out from other vendors at the Sykesville and downtown Westminster markets.

"For us to try to compete or be in business, I need to do something different," Thorne said.

Different markets are governed by different rules.

At the Carroll County Farmers' Market, once a crop is in season in the county, it can no longer be shipped in from an outside source to be sold. Crafts are juried by the market board to prevent too much overlap. The market board is elected by the vendors each year and handles the jury process and the market's publicity.

Most people don't consider the behind-the-scenes organization that results in the market.

"We like to eat good food," said customer Ron Kyker.

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