New farmers' market sprouts

June 04, 2006|By SANDY ALEXANDER | SANDY ALEXANDER,SUN REPORTER

Community leaders and residents believe that more fruits and vegetables will help the Oakland Mills Village Center grow strong and healthy.

Summer corn, ripe tomatoes, fresh blueberries and juicy watermelons on sale at a new weekly farmers' market will add to revitalization efforts in the village by "really bringing vibrancy to the community center," said Sandy Cedarbaum, village manager for the Oakland Mills Community Association.

The new market opens this week at the village center and will be held from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Tuesdays through Nov. 21.

It will be the fourth weekly market in the county, joining markets on Tuesday afternoons at Mount Pisgah African Methodist Episcopal Church in Columbia, Thursday afternoons at the East Columbia library branch and Saturday mornings at the Glenwood library branch.

As appealing as the markets can be to communities and shoppers, they are not easy to run successfully.

Across the state, there are 75 farmers' markets that rely on a particular kind of vendor, said Joan Schulz, administrator of the farmers' market nutrition program for the Maryland Department of Agriculture.

In Maryland, many farms are growing grain for the chicken industry while another large portion sells products wholesale.

"That leaves a much smaller group of farmers, traditionally called truck farmers, who are growing fruits and vegetables," she said.

Of those, the farmers' markets require "somebody who wants to not only deal with the public, but can afford to give up a day away from their farm," Schulz said. "From the farmers' point of view, they're taking a big chance on a farmers' market, especially a new farmers' market, because if a farmer has picked his crop, unless he sells it in a day to two, it's a loss."

In Howard County, "getting a new market going is tough because we're short on vendors," said Ginger S. Myers, an agricultural specialist for the Howard County Economic Development Authority.

Locally, direct marketing is growing in popularity for farmers who want to get the most return on their products, Myers said. Some have opted for stands on their farms. Some run agri-tourism businesses that invite customers to come to the farm for events or pick-your-own activities. Other have started single-farm or cooperative subscription services that allow people to pay a fee upfront and pick up produce weekly throughout the summer.

Only a couple of Howard County farmers, bakeries and other vendors have chosen the farmers' market in recent years.

"I could use double-digit more vendors for all kinds of local events," Myers said. "We need to grow our own vendors a little faster."

The rest of the market vendors come from Carroll County, the Eastern Shore, Virginia and elsewhere.

Schulz said inviting farms from neighboring areas is a common strategy across the state - and a wise one.

In most cases, restricting the vendors "significantly limits the number of farmers you have, and also the variety of things that they bring," she said.

Lana Edelen said she has been bringing fruits and vegetables from her Charles County farm to the Howard markets for at least 15 years.

"I'm two weeks earlier than people in Howard or Carroll County," she said. That means between her crop and other farmers', customers have more weeks to get the seasonal items they want.

Edelen, who is a market manager this year, said she likes that the Howard markets are producers-only. The vendors might drive a little ways, she said, but everything has to be grown, picked or made by them, usually that day, ensuring only fresh, in-season products.

While the season has been a bit slow, vendors say they are confident it will pick up when the most popular summer crops ripen, such as peaches, sweet corn and tomatoes.

The Howard market "is small, but it has everything that is seasonal," said Kate Brown of Highland, who was recently shopping at the Mount Pisgah location with her daughter Kara, 8. "I like when they have flowers, baked goods and vegetables."

She said Kara and her son Ryan, 6, usually "follow me around and eat fudge [from Unger's Fruit Farm] while I shop."

She added: "If it is local and it's from Maryland, all the better, but I don't have a problem if they bring in from Virginia. I think they have to or there's not enough."

Eva Skrenta of Columbia also is focused on the products.

"Stuff is fresh," she said. "I know it was picked either that morning or the night before. It's the taste."

Shucked peas from Musachio's Farm in Ridgely on the Eastern Shore, which Skrenta eats by the handful out of her refrigerator, are a particular favorite because she recalls eating fresh peas as a child.

"This gentleman made my life," she said, gesturing to the Musachios' regular market representative, Robert Stroud. "He made me feel like a kid again."

Organizers hope that kind of excitement will be felt at the new Oakland Mills market.

The Howard County Farmers' Market opened in Oakland Mills in 1990, but the center management did not to allow them to stay after stores there expressed concerns about competition.

To persuade the farmers to return, Cedarbaum said, she and others working on the project received the blessing of the management company and the new Food Lion grocery at the Village Center.

A committee has been advertising the market heavily to local residents.

"We had to take it on as a community [and tell them], `We want you back and were going to support you,'" Cedarbaum said.

That support is very important, Schulz said.

"Communities like the concept of farmer markets, but at the same time it has become a little bit of a romantic notion," she said. "The question [for residents] is not, `Would you like a market?' It's, `Are you committed to spending $20 a week?' The customer base is the key."

sandy.alexander@baltsun.com

Market locations and hours: www.hceda.org/agriculture/events.html.

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