Farmers' market eyes growth

Patrons: As a Howard source for fresh produce settles into two locations at which it has 3-year contracts, it hopes to draw larger crowds.

August 30, 2002|By Sandy Alexander | Sandy Alexander,SUN STAFF

Jo Grishman finds it easy to remember the Howard County Farmers' Market on Tuesdays. "I drive right by it," she said of the market's new Tuesday location this year at Mount Pisgah African Methodist Episcopal Church in Columbia.

"I love it," said Grishman, a Columbia Crossing artist, as she looked for peaches and tomatoes. "I live two blocks from here."

The market has always attracted neighbors such as Grishman. But after jumping to three locations in three years - pushed out of other areas by grocery stores' noncompetitive clauses, by deed restrictions or by failed negotiations - it needs to persuade a broader group of produce-hunters to become faithful customers.

Despite a summer with sometimes brutal weather conditions, the market's farmers and managers hope they are on the way to doing just that.

A steady seven to 10 sellers have served on average 300 to 600 customers this year - Tuesdays at the church on Cedar Fern Court and Thursdays at the east Columbia library on Cradlerock Way.

Those numbers match those from last year, said David Shaw, the market manager. He expects the crowds to grow as the market stays in one place, fulfilling three-year, rent-free contracts with both hosts.

"People are catching on," said Jim Unger of Ungers Fruit Farm in Hampstead. He finds that having two new locations is convenient, serving either side of U.S. 29. "People love it," he said. "They don't have to travel any great distance."

Shaw said the market fits into the church's mission with a program - in place for four years - to give food left over at the end of the day to food banks, shelters and other charities through the Washington Area Gleaning Network.

More broadly, "We want to be good neighbors and a good part of the community," Shaw said.

The library has an active partnership with the market, setting up a tent for the Friends of the Howard County Library to promote the library while staff members sign up people for reading programs and offer library cards. A "Market Tales" storytime for children, held at the same time as the farmers' market, has drawn up to 42 people with such themes as "farmyard fun," "story salad" and "vegetable tales."

Library Director Valerie J. Gross said she looks forward to Thursdays. "It is nice to see people coming into our parking lot," she said, adding that the market fits in well with the library's goals to be community-oriented and "to be a place where people can gather and share ideas."

Scorching-hot days and the persistent drought "has not been good thing for us produce-wise and customer-wise," said Linda Brown of Triadelphia Lake View Farm in Glenelg.

Attendance was down on the hottest days, said Shaw, because "customers tend to be very weather-conscious." To encourage visitors, sellers have provided free, cold bottled water. The market also offers a weekly drawing for $20 worth of market goods.

Of course, the biggest draws are the fresh produce and, Shaw said, the strong competition between sellers to move their perishable goods fast.

The tomatoes are exceptional this year, said Brown, as are other low-growing vegetables that can be irrigated. Melons also are very good because they store sugar when there is no rain.

Other items did not fare so well. Brown said corn, which is usually a big draw, has been scarce as the heat has scorched the stalks. Her farm and others have lost a lot of green beans as well.

Farmers are feeling the effects of a spring freeze that damaged early plums, sour cherries and peaches. And although this week's rain is welcome, plants and trees that were setting buds this summer - such as strawberries, pears and peaches - might have lost next year's fruit to the drought.

"We won't know until next spring," said Unger.

Ghassan and Taghrid Neshawat are relying on the farmers market for the second year to sell organic produce from their Jasmine Farm in Glenwood. They have found that their roadside stand does not pull in nearly as many customers.

Even as the drought has cut their productivity, they have been introducing customers to unusual vegetables, particularly those from the Middle East. They have sold small, sweet, neon eggplants, tender little princess cucumbers and a variety of tomatoes, such as zebra stripe and golden nugget.

The couple's homemade humus has hooked David Boder and his son, Yoni Grossman-Boder.

"My son told me [that the Neshawats' humus] is better than mine," said Boder. Yoni also likes zaater, or pita bread with thyme, olive oil and sesame seeds.

Boder, a vegetarian-food broker from Columbia is "not thrilled" that stores near former locations did not want the farmers' market too close to them. He also said the market is not as central now as it was last year at Wilde Lake Interfaith Center. But he and Yoni were willing to track it down.

Sellers are optimistic that more people will get into a routine of visiting the market.

Unger said people are telling him, "We've finally found you." Now, he said, "We're hoping [these locations] are permanent homes for us."

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