Roadside growth industry

Stands: Produce sellers provide a welcome stop for vacationers heading to - or from - the beach.

July 03, 2000|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

MARDELA SPRINGS - Locally grown white corn is finally ready and the tomatoes won't be far behind. This is not a tune-up or a fleeting heat wave. This is the real thing, the Fourth of July - summer.

Produce stands come and go along U.S. 50, but the number of vendors is on the increase again, after a state highway improvement campaign in the late 1980s to speed the trip to Ocean City put a crimp in the time-honored tradition of stopping along the way to buy fresh fruits and vegetables.

Just about every tourist bound for the ocean - or, even more likely, on his or her way back - will be part of a captive audience for dozens of produce stand operators stationed along the four-lane, 100-mile stretch of U.S. 50 from Kent Narrows to West Ocean City.

So far, nearly 30 vendors are open for business, operating at every level - from the back of pickups or farm wagons to large-scale markets stocking everything from produce to crafts and baked goods. Soon, as cantaloupes, watermelons and other midsummer crops ripen, many more will stake out spots along the busy highway.

"It's free enterprise at its best," says Tony Evans, a marketing specialist with the state Department of Agriculture. "A lot of them buy everything from wholesalers or from local farmers, others sell only what they can grow, some do both. Either way, [consumers] want that image of `I just walked out my back door and picked it this morning.'"

Outside Salisbury, it will be next to impossible not to spot the brightly painted mechanical farmer waving from atop the 55-foot windmill that has become a landmark on any trip to Ocean City.

And that's just what the Wright family - Charles Jr., 79, Charles III, 54, and 33-year-old Charles IV - had in mind when they erected the structure nearly a decade ago. Sometimes, for emphasis, they'll stick a Maryland flag in one of the metal farmer's mitts.

Yes, the windmill is functional, but the Wrights don't need it for irrigation. This is strictly marketing, says Charles III, whose family dedicates 100 of its 900 acres to growing crops sold at the market.

The market stands along the highway at the edge of land farmed by five generations of Wrights, and 6-year-old Charles V thinks he'll follow tradition, too. The contraption is so eye-catching the state included it one year as a question in the Maryland Bay Game handed out as a long-car-ride diversion for kids as their parents paid the toll at the Bay Bridge.

Gaining an edge, Wright says, is as important in produce as in any business, especially in Wicomico County, home to more than half of the vendors who work the beach highway. One nine-mile stretch features 13 markets, including Wright's.

"I kind of look at it as the strip," Wright says. "It's just like McDonald's or Burger King always seem to want to cluster up together in the same area. If people have stopped here and they're satisfied, they'll remember the windmill and stop again."

Unlike some of his rivals, Wright says his family is content to run the market only four months a year. They started from the back of a pickup 40 years ago, he says, and have little interest in expanding beyond fruits and vegetables they can grow or buy from nearby farmers.

Down the road, near Hebron, Bill and Kathy Stephenson have taken the opposite approach at Jack's Market (the name is a holdover from the previous owner). Their operation has added an array of Amish crafts, wind toys, lawn balls and yard ornaments. For the past 10 years, they've worked 12- to 16-hour days from mid-March to Christmas.

"It's a killer job," says Kathy Stephenson. "Produce is our mainstay; that's what built our reputation. It's sticking with what you know. The other stuff is a bonus."

Lots of customers, Stephenson says, stop twice. On the way to the beach, they grab fruit and tomatoes - anything that doesn't have to be cooked. On the return trip, they load up with summer staples for the dinner table back home.

Either way, it's the westbound side of U.S. 50 that sees the bulk of sales. Location, access and visibility seem to be everything, says Audrey Callahan, who runs Backyard Produce on a prime corner carved from an open field just west of Easton.

A location that can be seen from a distance and that is easily accessible from the highway has a good chance, Callahan says.

Operating from the rented corner for a decade, Callahan's family grows about 75 percent of the produce they sell. Early in the year, corn, cantaloupe and other favorites are obtained through wholesalers who buy in Florida and the Carolinas.

"There's one guy who has a sign for local Silver Queen corn from April to October," Callahan says. "We get a lot of repeat customers because we stand by what we sell."

Among those who stop every year, to and from vacation, are Dean and Nancy Thomas of Frederick.

"We can't go back home without stocking up. It's all part of the ritual of going to Ocean City," said Dean Thomas.

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