Gourmet tastes revive Arundel farms

Demand: Brisk sales at farmers' markets and plans for a winery show that county agriculture is thriving.

May 16, 2004|By Erika Hobbs | Erika Hobbs,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

A thirst for local wine and the demand for niche agricultural products are adding zest to Anne Arundel County's farm economy.

That vitality can be seen in the county's booming farmers' markets, which offer a vivid array of produce to serve a swiftly growing ethnic population and quality-conscious consumers. It also is evident in the fact that Anne Arundel soon could be home to the state's 13th winery.

"Agriculture isn't dead in the county," said Dave Myers, a Maryland Cooperative Extension educator.

Statewide, agriculture has undergone transition in recent years, particularly as tobacco farmers make the transition to other crops.

The result has been a growth in such areas as straw and hay production for horse country; ornamental and nursery stock for new development; and exotic fruits and vegetables for ethnic and evolving tastes.

Managers of Anne Arundel County's five farmers' markets say the markets are experiencing a kind of revival.

For these reliable harbingers of summer, it's not just tomatoes, beans and corn anymore. These stands are attracting a younger, more diverse crowd who demands more gourmet and exotic foods, market managers say.

Sales are so brisk that some markets are adding vendors, and some farmers are expanding operations.

"It's all tied to people's tastes," said Bobi Crispens, coordinator for the two Annapolis-based markets.

Market clientele, more than ever before, want to know where food is coming from and what is put on it, said Anita Robertson, Severna Park Market coordinator. Increasingly, customers want to support their local economies, Robertson said.

Farmers' markets are not required to report financial figures, so countywide estimates are spotty. But Crispens estimated that gross sales topped $300,000 at Riva Road, the county's largest market, up markedly from the year before.

At the Severna Park market, where sales topped the "low-six figures," several new vendors joined in to meet demand, Robertson said.

Both markets - as well as those across the state - are rushing to keep up with requests for unusual foods. At Severna Park, locally grown shiitake mushrooms will appear this summer.

Young, urban folk clamored last year for designer tomatoes, Crispens said. She plans to offer new varieties of red and yellow grape tomatoes, and next year, she'll add green ones.

Products such as cilantro, Asian vegetables, organic produce and ornamental pumpkins are flying off Riva Road stands. And most days, she added, fresh flowers sell out in two hours.

"It's been great," she said.

Growing wine sales

Myers and other industry experts have noted heightened activity in the county's vineyard market, a reflection of rising demand for Maryland wine.

Statewide, Maryland wine sales jumped 13 percent between 2002 and 2003, generating more than $5.6 million, said Kevin Atticks, executive director of the Association of Maryland Wineries. They rose 15 percent the year before.

To carry a Maryland appellation, 75 percent of a wine's content must come from state-grown grapes. Wineries have used up the state's production and desperately seek more, said Joseph A. Fiola, a viticulture specialist with the Western Maryland Research and Education Center.

With more than 200 acres of vineyards in the state, Anne Arundel falls somewhere in the middle, with more than 7,000 vines, Maryland Grape Growers Association figures show. About 35 vineyards statewide supply wine-quality grapes.

In Anne Arundel, about a half-dozen grape growers have shown interest in opening wineries, and one is set to open soon, county officials said.

Grape-growing is painstakingly slow.

It takes about three years to produce grapes and several more to break even on an investment, which can cost about $15,000 or more an acre. What held local grape growers up, however, was a zoning rule that prohibited farmers from processing some of their crops on site: Grape growers could not make their own wine.

With that rule lifted last summer for wineries, the 2-acre Harness Creek in Annapolis plans to open over the next several months.

`A destination'

Because wineries evoke romance and intrigue - think Napa Valley and the south of France - county officials hope travelers will be attracted not only by the prospect of vineyards tucked amid rolling hills near the Chesapeake Bay, but also by the area's airports and Interstate 95 corridor.

Wineries could generate bed-and-breakfast inns and add value to other industries as well, they say.

"They're making [the county] a destination for people to come out to, and while we're not that far advanced yet, I'd think that is where we're heading," said Jeff Opel, district manager of the county's soil conservation district.

Anne Arundel County Farmers' Market

Riva Road & Harry S. Truman Parkway, Annapolis

Saturdays, 7 a.m. to 12 p.m., April 17 to Sept. 25

Tuesdays, 7 a.m. to 12 p.m., June 15 to Oct. 12

Sundays, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., July 4 to Sept. 5

Fall and Christmas hours: Saturdays, 8 a.m. to 12 p.m., Oct. 2 to Dec. 18

Downtown Annapolis Farmers' Market

Calvert and Clay St. (across from the Arundel Center)

Thursdays, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., July 8 to Sept. 30

Deale Farmers' Market

Cedar Grove United Methodist Church parking lot

5965 Deale-Churchton Road

Thursdays, 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. Early July to mid-October

Piney Orchard Farmers' Market

Piney Orchard Community Center parking lot

Stream Valley Drive off Route 170, Odenton

Wednesdays, 2 p.m. to 6:30 p.m., June 9 to Oct. 27

Thanksgiving Special: Wednesday, Nov. 24, 12 p.m. to 4 p.m.

Severna Park Farmers' Market

Ritchie Highway (Route 2) and Jones Station Road, Severna Park

Saturdays, 8 a.m. to 12 p.m., May 1 to Oct. 30

Maryland's wineries and grape growers

For information contact the Association of Maryland Wineries, www.marylandwine.com and the Maryland Grape Growers Association, www.marylandwine. com/mgga

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