Melinda Hicks of Baltimore prepares a mix of sprouts to sell… (Baltimore Sun photo by Lloyd…)
On Saturday morning, Katie Morris strolled through the Waverly Farmers' Market with the patience of a regular, stopping frequently to inspect apples and granola cups over the rim of her glasses.
She's been coming here for eight winters, when the downtown farmers' market closer to her Butchers Hill home is closed for the season. Her Saturday ritual is to drop off her young daughters Isadora and Estelle at art class, grab her three half-gallon jars to be refilled with milk, and drive to Waverly.
"I don't live near here, but it matters to us," said the 41-year-old professor, who teaches at the Maryland Institute College of Art. "My children say their milk doesn't taste right when we go somewhere else. That's the value of this place for me."
Though Saturday was nippy, the market on 32nd Street — the only one in Baltimore open year-round — was teeming with shoppers, families and children. A trio of musicians played near the entrance.
Scenes like this are increasingly common across the country, according to the recently updated farmers' market directory released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Since 2010, the number of winter markets has increased 38 percent to 1,225.
"Consumers are looking for more ways to buy locally grown food throughout the year," Kathleen Merrigan, deputy secretary of agriculture, said in a statement. The department attributes the growth to new technology that allows farmers to extend their production seasons, and to the growing popularity of locally grown food.
In Maryland, the increase is harder to measure because the USDA counts as winter markets any that are open at least once between November and March, which includes many markets in Maryland, said Julianne Oberg, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Agriculture. Still, she noted that out of the state's 137 farmers' markets, 48 stay open through November, and 10 are open year-round.
At least two new year-round markets have opened recently in Maryland, one in Salisbury in March and another in Kent Island in October, both operating out of local churches.
Diane Bedlin, manager at the Kent market, said people in the Eastern Shore island had to travel anywhere from 30 to 40 minutes to the closest farmers' markets in Annapolis and Chestertown.
"Let's face it: In Kent Island we have to go off the island for everything. We don't even have a bookstore," Bedlin said. "It's really nice to have this opportunity."
Bedlin said opening the market has also helped some farmers in the Eastern Shore save their harvests.
The Waverly market is one of the two biggest year-round markets in the state, along with one in Takoma Park in Montgomery County, said Oberg.
It's been open since 1980, and farmers from across the region use it to sell everything from produce to apple butter, with some coming from as far away as Orrtanna, Pa., northwest of Gettysburg.
The proliferation of farmers' markets in general hasn't been good news for all farmers, said Conor Roderique, market manager at Reid's Orchard, a fruit farm in Buchanan Valley, Pa. Since last year, his sales at the Waverly market have been declining, he said. He attributes the drop to a dilution of the customer base.
"People start by going to other markets during the summer, and when those close, they forget about this one," he said. "You still get by, but any decline isn't good news."
Charlie Greenawalt, a 51-year-old art teacher at Midtown Academy, sees a different picture as a customer. In the dozen or so years he's been coming to Waverly, the crowds have just gotten bigger.
"People are realizing how important it is to eat real food," he said. "And it's a community you're supporting."
Morris and Greenawalt are friends. On Saturday, they casually toured the market together, she looking for milk, and he looking for apples and bread from Atwater's bakery. They like the camaraderie of the market in the winter, when everyone, customers and farmers, toughs it out despite the temperature.
"I love that in the coldest winter days, they still come out," Morris said. "You look them in the eye, and there's this bond."