It's a growing business

Farmers' markets are 'red hot' in the city, across Md.

August 16, 2008|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,Sun reporter

The corn's been selling out before closing time. The heirloom tomatoes disappear, too. This summer, farmers' markets have emerged as consumer-driven havens for decidedly local foods sold in a setting of tell-all candor.

In a summer vexed by food safety worries and gasoline-cost anxiety, farmers' markets are mushrooming. Growers also report favorable weather conditions as boosting this summer's harvest - as well as increasing attendance. Consumers say they are shopping for price and assurances that the food comes from farms no more than about 50 miles away.

"I've gone from two workers at the Waverly Market to five," said Cindi Umbarger, who owns Woolsey Farm in Harford County's Churchville. "I've gone from three freezers to four. I've gone from one to two trucks."

The inquiries are different as well. "I can tell all our new customers by all the questions they asked," Umbarger said. "They asked about how our animals are housed. They asked about hormones and antibiotics. They asked where our feed comes from."

Mark Powell, chief of marketing and agricultural development at the Maryland Department of Agriculture, said sales numbers are not in yet, but he is hearing that sales are up.

"For years, the Maryland Department of Agriculture labored in the wilderness trying to promote our local produce. All of a sudden, it's red-hot," he said. "All of the indicators say there is something going on in the minds of consumers saying, 'We want local.'"

Added Vernon "Mark" Rey, president of the 32nd Street Farmers' Market in Baltimore's Waverly neighborhood: "Vendors tell me they are up 25 percent from a year ago. Some are up 50 percent."

And while the customer base remains top-heavy with those seeking a quart box of ripe tomatoes or peaches, restaurateurs now shop these stalls to acquire ingredients they will later promote for their Maryland pedigree and eco-friendly status.

"My egg and chicken customers like the story behind the product," said Andy Bachman of Fallston, who has doubled the number of eggs he typically sells on a busy Saturday. "They want that local product, and they are willing to pay for it. There is a real interest in and appreciation of the egg."

One way to measure the increased attraction is by the number of markets. The state reports that in 2004, Maryland had 72 farmers' markets, up from 30 a decade earlier. Last year, there were 74 markets; this year, there are 84. The Baltimore area now has 10 markets from Catonsville to Dundalk.

The statistics translate into a half-day beehive of activity when the farmers arrive with their loaded trucks, collapsible tables and green shade umbrellas.

"The only reason I haven't been selling out earlier is that I've been bringing so much more," said Joseph Bartenfelder, who sells produce at his Preston farm on the Eastern Shore and is also a member of the Baltimore County Council. "I think people are staying closer to home this summer and that that they are scared by all the produce shipped in over great distances."

While Baltimore's principal farmers' market opened downtown on a Sunday in the 1970s, its typical audience - sandwiched under the Jones Falls Expressway - has enlarged this season. Its organizers say that it has been crowded since opening this year in June.

As bells at the nearby Zion Lutheran Church call worshipers to service, market shoppers overlook the gritty setting under the highway to spend a couple of hours lining up for coffee and breakfast items. The tote bags bulge with fruit, vegetables, cut flowers and plants. This sprawling market stretches from Gay Street northward.

The downtown market's organizers note increased numbers of downtown dwellers residing in the Harbor East and other adjacent areas, but they also credit other issues.

"People are aware of the carbon footprint," said Carole Simon, who coordinates the Downtown Farmers' Market. "They look at a tomato and know it was just picked off a vine and that it was not gassed to make it appear red."

Organizers say food safety is driving the success of the markets.

"I simply feel very comfortable shopping here because everything is fresh," said Juanita Sowell, who lives in Charles Village and walks to the Waverly market. "You know what you are getting."

Janna Howley, whose Farmfresh group organizes markets in Washington's Dupont Circle, as well as St. Michaels, Annapolis and Silver Spring, says her organization counts attendance - which is not done in Baltimore. In 2006, her markets attracted 150,000. Last year, attendance increased to 170,000.

Participants at the Waverly market, open for five hours Saturday mornings, see this summer as a boom year.

"Our sales this summer are almost double what they were last year," Umbarger said this week. "After a national ground beef scare last winter, I sold more ground beef than ever. I almost ran out."

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