After years of wandering from parking lot to parking lot, the Howard County Farmer's Market has found two new homes its leaders hope will set the stage for the market to flourish in coming years.
The farmers' market board voted yesterday to enter into agreements with the east Columbia branch of the Howard County Library and Mount Pisgah African Methodist Episcopal Church, each of which will provide a home for the market one day a week.
From mid-May through late November, the market will sell produce on parking lots at the church, on Cedar Fern Court off Cedar Lane, on Tuesdays and at the library Thursdays.
"We are really excited about both sites," said David Shaw, the market master. "We see a great partnership with both of our hosts in serving the community."
The market has a three-year agreement with the library and an open-ended agreement with the church, Shaw said. The farmers will operate at both locations rent-free.
The market's future became uncertain during its last season, when Columbia Management Inc. rejected a five-year deal for the market to use the parking lot of Wilde Lake Interfaith Center in Columbia.
Tony Evans, coordinator of farmers' market programs for the Maryland Department of Agriculture, had said Rouse Co. officials had told the farmers that their sales could violate a zoning regulation, but they were allowed to sell their produce at the interfaith center for only that year.
Nearby food vendors in Wilde Lake Village Center, such as David's Natural Market, were concerned that the market was competing for sales of produce.
Never a permanent home
The market has not had a permanent residence since it opened in Oakland Mills Village Center in 1990. Since then, it has operated in several locations, including Harper's Choice Village and the Dobbin Center.
The market's 12 vendors, who depend on their sales of fresh corn, watermelon, potatoes and other produce, had grown frustrated with moving frequently and worried that customers might not follow them. Some thought of joining one of the other 64 farmers' markets in the state.
Shaw said the new market locations are ideal because they serve residents in east and west Columbia. A number of customers had requested that the market have locations on both sides of U.S. 29, and many sites the board considered did not satisfy that request, he said.
"We really, really looked extremely hard throughout the county for viable locations," Shaw said.
Broader range of products
Now that the market has a home, Shaw said, vendors can focus on bringing new products, such as smoked meat, fish and hand-made soaps, to the market. He said the market is vital to farmers' financial stability, providing the farmers a higher return for the fresh food they sell customers.
"We're removing the middleman in the food chain," he said.
The library will have a presence at the Thursday market, setting up a table where people can sign up for library cards, and coordinating story times and activities, such as a zucchini-carving contest, with the market, said Valerie J. Gross, Howard's library director.
On the market's first Thursday, the library hopes to have a celebration to let the community know about the market's new home.
"We think the community will see this as a nice destination on a Thursday afternoon," Gross said. "We want to serve as a social gathering place which fosters a sense of community."
Richard W. Story, executive director of the Howard County Economic Development Authority - which had been helping the market find a permanent location - said he hopes both sites will serve as a long-term solution, exposing a wider population to Howard County-grown agricultural product.
"We're really looking for long-term relations," Story said. "I really don't want to do this every year."