Farmers' markets harvesting sales

Specialties: County offers home-grown gourmet items for all tastes.

October 27, 2002|By Lucie L. Snodgrass | Lucie L. Snodgrass,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Bel Air's Saturday farmers' market, at 27 one of the oldest in the state, is a standout in many ways.

Brimming with colorful fruits, vegetables, plants and other locally grown or made products from April to October, it consistently ranks as one of the state's Top 10 markets in attendance.

It is also, according to Tony Evans, coordinator of farmers' markets at the Maryland Department of Agriculture, the only market in the state where compost is sold or where, for the first time this year, local beef is for sale.

Here's something else available only in Harford: At the Rockfield Twilight Market, the last Friday evening of each month of the season, local winery Fiore Vineyard sells its wines by the glass.

"Harford County is amazing in its ability to find local farmers who are willing to sell their products at the markets," Evans says. "It's a testament to the strength of agriculture in Harford County."

It also speaks volumes about the thousands of loyal customers, many of them relative newcomers to Harford County, who flock to the county's four farmers' markets.

It's a regular occurrence for 1,000 people to shop each week at the Saturday Bel Air market.

Havre de Grace's Saturday market, in the heart of its historic downtown, has an equally loyal following and specialty vendors, including David Keyes, a local cheese maker.

The Edgewood market, established three years ago as part of County Executive James M. Harkins' revitalization effort for the area, has doubled in size, from six to 12 vendors.

Under an annual $5,000 grant from the county, low-income women with children can purchase fresh produce, using coupons that vendors later redeem for cash.

"The market averages 250 transactions in a three-hour period," says C. John Sullivan III, Harford County's agricultural coordinator.

And, he said, demand would support more producers, but "our biggest problem is finding vendors."

Despite a decline in family farming during the past three decades, agriculture occupies an important place in Harford's diverse economy, and enjoys strong support from political leaders and residents.

Joann Blewett, a Bel Air resident, said that shopping at the markets is a choice she has made to help keep local agriculture alive. This year, in addition to her usual produce purchases, Blewett has started buying steaks and ground beef from Deer Creek Beef, a Harford County business.

"I like the fact that we can support our local producers and help preserve family farms by purchasing locally raised beef," she said. "It's also the most tender and flavorful meat we've ever had. It's well-worth the price."

Nancy Ann Sayre, Deer Creek's coordinator and a founding member of the venture, says that sentiments such as Blewett's have contributed to a phenomenal first-year success story.

"We thought we'd start out slowly, but we hit the ground running. We're very pleased," Sayre said of the 5,000 pounds of hormone-free beef the farm has sold since April.

"But the timing was right. People have concerns about the unknowns in beef products. With our meat, they know where and how the cattle are raised and what they've been fed," Sayre said.

Ten feet from the beef stand, customers line up for another of Harford County's niche market products: cheese. Kate Dallam, an owner of Broom's Bloom Dairy in Creswell, decided to start selling cheese for additional revenue for her family's ninth-generation farm.

"It's a way to capture direct marketing dollars without a huge investment," Dallam says. She knows that the future of small farms depends in no small part on the value consumers place on purchasing local products from family-operated farms.

Similar to Deer Creek Beef, Broom's Bloom Dairy emphasizes that it is a family-owned and -operated enterprise. A yellow flier, available free at Dallam's stand, gives a short history of her farm and provides quick and easy recipes that use her Cheddar, Colby and jack cheeses.

The community spirit at the Harford farmers' markets is exhibited as much by vendors as it is by customers.

Art Johnson, who with his wife, Cathleen, and their grandson Greg runs Sweet Aire Farm in Darlington, has sold his fruits at farmers' markets for 22 years.

A professor of bioengineering at the University of Maryland by day, Johnson puts in long hours to provide unusual fruits such as black currants, locally grown kiwis and Spitzenburg apples to his customers. Revenue clearly is not his top concern.

"I've known some of my customers for over 20 years," he said. "I may not know their name if I see them on the street, but I know their stories, their lives and I've watched their kids grow. It gives you a sense of grounding and realism."

Beckie Gurley, the only certified organic produce vendor in Harford, feels a similar connection to her customers, some of whom suffer from allergies to chemicals and rely on Gurley's fingerling potatoes, fresh soybeans, haricots verts and other healthful vegetables.

"We're exposed to so many chemicals during the day, why eat them in your food?" she asks.

A former environmental consultant who six years ago left consulting for farming, she describes herself as "very happy" at the Bel Air market.

"People bring their dogs and neighbors and mothers. It's a community event," Gurley said.

Judging from the bulging bags of produce that everyone seems to carry away, business isn't bad, either.

Harford County farmers' markets

Bel Air - 7 a.m. to 11 a.m. Saturdays from April to October; 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesdays April to October, county courthouse parking lot, Main Street.

Edgewood - 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. Thursdays from April to October, Edgewood Road at the MARC station.

Havre de Grace - 9 a.m. to noon Saturdays from May through October, Pennington Avenue, between Washington Street and Union Avenue.

Rockfield Twilight Market - 5 p.m. to dusk Fridays from May to September, Rockfield Manor, 501 Churchville Road, Bel Air.

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