Marketing a fresh idea

Produce: Howard County launches an awareness campaign for its growers, who fret about the future of their farmers' market.

July 26, 2000|By Dahlia Naqib | Dahlia Naqib,SUN STAFF

To the ranks of elite agricultural products like "Vidalia onions," "Indian River citrus" and "Napa Valley wines" can be added "Howard County Grown produce."

The designation, which is part of a promotional program to help county farmers, was unveiled yesterday by County Executive James N. Robey, who emphasized the importance of supporting local farmers.

The promotional materials, which include stickers and labels printed with the "Howard County Grown" logo, are meant to separate Howard farmers from their competition by fostering customer recognition and emphasizing freshness, said Ginger Myers, agricultural marketing specialist for the county Economic Development Authority.

The logo features a drawing of a farmer at sunrise, wearing overalls and holding a basket of freshly picked corn. Computer disks carrying the logo were given out to farmers, who are free to reproduce and use the image.

"The name `locally grown' has become so diluted," said Myers, who initiated the program. Grocery stores can use that description for products from as far away as North Carolina, she said.

The promotional campaign is county farming officials' answer to vendors at farmers' markets who complain that they cannot establish a customer base because the market has been displaced twice, and each time they have had to rebuild their clientele, said Howard County farmers Jim and Linda Brown. The Browns have been vendors at the Howard farmers' market from its beginning. The market is now at Columbia's Dobbin Center.

Some customers don't need the stickers to know that the products are fresh. Mary Anne Lamb said she often drives half an hour from her home in Owen Brown to shop at a Fresh Fields store for anything she couldn't first find at the Dobbin Center farmers' market, which she visits every week. And she said she doesn't mind the higher-than-grocery-store prices or the absence of air conditioning.

"It's worth it," Lamb said yesterday at the Dobbin Center market. The only thing she does mind, she said, is searching for the Howard market each time it moves.

Farmers are hopeful that the logo could turn more customers into loyal patrons like Lamb. But the main concern of the Browns is the threat of having to relocate yet again. According to Sue Ongert, interim manager for the Dobbins market, the nearby former Uptons building might soon become the site of a grocery store. If that happens, a noncompetition clause in the store's contract store would probably prohibit the operation of a produce market in the vicinity.

In the 11-year life of the market, it has moved from Oakland Mills to Joseph Square to Dobbin Center. With each move, farmers have had to start over again because customers don't go out of their way to find the market, the Browns said.

But die-hard farmers' market fans like Lamb are willing to search and won't settle for grocery stores. She said she loves the variety and especially likes to speak with farmers about their produce. Farmer David Shaw, for example, offers six varieties of garlic, and each one comes with a list of recommended uses.

Lamb bought one bulb of "Chesmook Red" garlic for cooking and a bulb of "German White" garlic that, according to Shaw, is so potent that "it brings tears to your eyes."

"You almost have to try it," said Lamb.

The "Howard County Grown" promotional materials will be distributed to county restaurants that use Howard-grown products, Myers said.

The Howard County Farmers' Market is open in Dobbin Center in Columbia from 2:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays

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