On the last Friday evening of every summer month, a group of Harford County farmers sets up folding tables and tents in a park in Bel Air for the Twilight Farmers' Market. They sell all the items you'd expect to see - meats, cheeses, produce, honey, cut flowers - but there is also live music, wine by the glass, picnic tables and a petting zoo. Shoppers are encouraged to make their purchases and then hang out for a while. The next one is tomorrow night.
"This is more of a social occasion," said Kate Dallam, a Harford County dairy farmer who also runs the market. "All of the other markets that I do are more routine. This is more of a destination or an event instead of a `stop and buy some corn and go home' type of thing."
Pets are welcome, and there are plenty of children running around, said Dallam. She encourages shoppers to bring blankets so they can sit on the grass and listen to the live music while eating if all of the picnic tables are taken. The last few markets featured bluegrass bands.
The market starts at 5 p.m. and goes to dusk - around 9 p.m. It will be going on through September.
This is the market's fourth season. "It's been a huge success for us," said John Sullivan of the county's Office of Economic Development. "I've been getting calls from other counties that want to duplicate the effort in their counties, which is a pretty good compliment."
The market benefits the Harford County Agricultural Marketing Cooperative - a nonprofit organization that provides grant money to local farmers. Vendors pay a nominal fee to participate, local small businesses sponsor it, and profits from alcohol sales go to the co-op.
Last year the market grossed roughly $2,000 for the co-op. These funds contributed to a larger pool of money that it distributed as grants to local farmers.
"We gave one dairy farmer money for his son to start a manure-hauling business," said Dallam. "It is not glamorous, but it is really needed."
They've also provided funds for farmers to develop Web sites so they can capture retail dollars. This "is very important to the sustainability of agriculture in this area," said Dallam.
About 25 vendors participate, and there is a wide variety of food - crab cakes, crab soups, hot dogs, sweet corn, honey, pork, lamb, handmade ice cream mixed with fresh fruit, local wines, bread, many types of cheese - including an Old Bay cheddar.
For those just interested in dinner, one vendor sells pre-made meals (all of the ingredients are from local farms).
It is the atmosphere that draws people to the market. "People are out looking to relax," said Cybil Preston, a local farmer. "My produce is not a big seller, but we enjoy going because we have a good time."
The Twilight Farmers' Market runs tomorrow, Aug. 27 and Sept. 24 from 5 p.m. to dusk. It takes place at Rockfield Manor, 501 Churchville Road, Bel Air.