Farmers' markets sprout up

Growth: Under the guidance of an experienced agricultural employee, the number of these ventures statewide has increased significantly.

July 01, 2002|By Maria Blackburn | Maria Blackburn,SUN STAFF

Tony Evans, He is the prince of peas, the titan of tomatoes, the duke of cukes.

Call Tony Evans, the coordinator of farmers' markets for the state Department of Agriculture, and prepare to hear him sing the praises of Maryland-grown strawberries and wax poetic about wax beans.

But on a sweltering summer morning last week, Evans was uncharacteristically quiet. He was worried. With less than an hour to go before the opening of the newly established farmers' market at the Village of Cross Keys, only one farm had arrived to set up.

The cabbages from Richardson Farms in White Marsh were deep purple and perfect, their glistening ears of Silver Princess corn had been picked hours earlier. But where was the baker with her pumpkin bread, Evans wondered as he adjusted the brim of his straw planter's hat. Would the egg guy show up? And please, please, Evans thought, let one of the farmers have early tomatoes.

"It's like waiting for your chickens to come home," Evans said. "You count them when you can see them."

And then, one by one, the remaining five vendors arrived, their pickup trucks and vans crammed with crates of basil and zucchini, coolers of eggs and lettuce, and, yes, some red and green tomatoes. Evans was thrilled.

"We have achieved critical mass," he told the farmers as they busily put up their canopies and set up their wares on folding tables. "We now have a farmers' market."

Since he started in the job 11 years ago, the 65-year-old from outside New Hope, Pa., has developed about 20 new farmers' markets in such far-flung spots as the City Market House in downtown Annapolis, on the parking lots of Baltimore County shopping malls and on small-town main streets on the Eastern Shore.

During Evans' tenure, the number of farmers' markets in Maryland has mushroomed from about 20 in 1991 to 71 this year. This year, for the first time, a farmers' market is held in every county in the state and in Baltimore City. Many of the markets will open during the next two weeks.

"It's gotten to a point where there is more demand for farmers' markets than there are farmers," said Evans. A number of markets, however, such as those in Towson, Hunt Valley and White Marsh, have waiting lists of farmers who want to sell there.

Evans knows which market is the busiest (the Sunday market under the Jones Falls Expressway in Baltimore draws up to 5,000 people), which markets are prettiest (the Chestertown market at the Fountain Park comes to mind), and which items are most popular at farmers' markets (sales of tomatoes, corn, cantaloupe and watermelon generate 70 percent of dollar volume at markets).

However, he refuses to take credit for the success and growth of the state's farmers' markets, preferring instead to laud his department's comprehensive program. "The main reason the agriculture department has this program is that if we can have farmers sell direct, there's more profit for them, and some of the smaller farmers who don't sell wholesale can stay on their land," said Evans, a 30-year agriculture department veteran and former reporter at the now-defunct News American.

But the Annapolis resident, who often works long days and weekends to fit in visits to farmers and farmers' markets throughout the state, goes beyond the call of duty, farmers say.

"He's a good guy," said Ronald Chason, who sells eggs, lettuce and herbs from his farm in Hydes in Baltimore County at area farmers' markets. "If something doesn't work one way, Tony will continue working until he finds another way."

Bill Harris, who grows peaches on his 50-acre farm in southern Anne Arundel County and sells at 11 farmers' markets during the season, has worked with Evans since 1991. "He's very devoted to his job, to making sure the markets work," he said

"When you have a farmers' market you need two things: You need vendors and customers," Harris said. Too many vendors and not enough customers leads to vendors dropping out. Too many customers and not enough vendors means customers won't return because they can't get everything they want, he said.

"There's this magic combination of vendors and customers he seems to get right," Harris said. "That's something very few people can do - it's hard."

Evans' rangy silhouette is a familiar sight at area markets, where he counts customers, talks to vendors about what they need and answers a gross of questions from shoppers about topics ranging from whether the vendors grow the produce they sell - most do - to how to cook green beans.

He also runs consumer surveys and does demographic research for areas that want to start new markets. In the fall and winter, he visits farmers on their farms to check in.

"If you paid a consultant to do what he does for us, it would cost farmers a fortune," said Harris.

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