Marketing farmers

August 19, 2006|By KAREN HOSLER

Not much past 8 a.m. on a summer Saturday, the usually sleepy little park and ride lot at Jones Station Road in Severna Park is bustling with commerce.

Organic farmer Walt Drummond is weighing out cukes, squash and cherry tomatoes, and chatting with a line of customers as he goes - weighing and chatting, weighing and chatting, and nearly dancing behind his display table with an energy he says comes from eating properly.

Not far away, parishioners from the First Baptist Church in Annapolis are selling Southern-style produce - peas, beans, okra and greens - grown at the Tracey's Landing farm of Harrell S. Spruill, who lets the church reap the harvest for youth programs.

Nearby tables offer peaches, freshly cut sunflowers and zinnias, homemade dog biscuits, hibiscus plants and shrubs. Lawson Kratz offers a taste of sugar-baked pecans with the seduction of a drug dealer. First one's free.

At one end of the lot, where the crowd has swelled in front of the pastry-laden tables of Vera Port, customer Allison Fox happily surveys the cheerful scene of familiar faces.

"What a wonderful way to start the weekend," she proclaims.

Many Marylanders seem to agree. So many, in fact, that a state campaign of more than a dozen years ago to encourage establishment of farmers' markets to supplement the handful that had sprung up on their own has been a resounding success. An estimated 50,000 customers a week frequent Maryland's farmers' markets, which this summer reached a record total of 75.

Chief beneficiaries may be the 400 farmers and related vendors, who have a retail outlet for their produce not easily available to those with small plots.

"It's how we feed our families," said Marshall Starkey, who sells 300 dozen ears of corn, grown at Browns Cove Farm in Middle River, at Jones Station each Saturday. Like most other vendors he also has a day job.

Small farmers kept in business, even part-time, benefit everyone in the state by protecting open space from development.

What's more, the markets provide an outlet for other small-business folks, such as Amy Yule of Easton, who makes those Pecan Yummies that Mr. Kratz was pushing. She sells them over the Internet, too, but first has to get her customers hooked on the taste.

"Each year we're growing bigger," said Anita Robertson of Queen Anne's County, who sells jams, jellies and relishes while also managing the Severna Park market.

At her market, all the goods must be produced by the vendor and food-based. But each market sets its own rules. Baltimore's market under the Jones Falls Expressway viaduct allows clothing and jewelry.

Customers benefit from an experience richer than that offered by most groceries.

"It's a place to go meet your neighbors and exchange gossip," observed Anthony Evans, who as a state Department of Agriculture employee helped set up the Severna Park market and lots of others in the early 1990s. He's retired now but still makes the rounds.

Ms. Fox and her husband, Max Janof, are practically farmers' market groupies. They run a publishing firm in Alexandria, Va., during the week, but spend weekends in Severna Park, often at the market. Mr. Janof brings coins from vending machines that the couple own and strolls around helping to make change. He's known as the "Quarter Man."

On a sunny summer morning, a visit to the market qualifies as one of life's simple pleasures, a blissful escape from a troubled world to a place where the gravest concern is whether Vera's chocolate-covered cream puffs will disappear before the line does.

Mr. Evans worries that farmers will also someday disappear as their offspring choose more lucrative careers. There's a counter trend, though, of midlife suit-and-tie professionals trying their luck at something new.

Take Mr. Kratz, the Pecan Yummies salesman. He's president of his own engineering company. "I'm just here helping a friend and because it's fun," he explained.

On that basis, farmers' markets should be around for quite a while.

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