At the Baltimore Farmers' Market & Bazaar, new finds and friendly faces

Bigger focus on organics and container gardening this year

April 03, 2013|By Kit Waskom Pollard, For The Baltimore Sun

On Sunday, Thomas Albright will wake up early.

Before 5 a.m., the patriarch of the Albright Farms family will be in his truck, driving from his farm in Monkton to the city, where Saratoga and Holliday streets meet underneath the Jones Falls Expressway. By 7 a.m., he'll see his first customers — friendly faces coming to buy Albright Farms' produce or meat, kicking off another season of the Baltimore Farmers' Market & Bazaar.

Albright has participated in the market since 1979, just two years after it opened. In that time, he's seen the market evolve to keep up with the way customers shop, eat and cook.

"Years ago, the older generation bought volumes of produce to cook at home," he says. "It used to be that people came to buy volume and something cheap. Some still do, and that's available. But people buy smaller quantities and want a different-quality product now."

For Albright, that means a focus on selling meat from animals that are "pastured and natural," with no antibiotics or hormones.

A few years ago, John Bartenfelder of Bartenfelder Farms noticed more customers voicing an interest in organic products. In response, Bartenfelder began the three-year process of converting several acres of his farm to organic status.

This year, he will sell organic herbs harvested from that land. "I think the demand is there for organic herbs," he says.

If the herbs are popular this year, Bartenfelder says, he will probably expand his organic offerings; by 2016, about 30 more acres of Bartenfelder Farm will be certified organic.

Another trend that Pam Pahl, owner of Pahl's Farm, has noticed is that more people are looking to container gardening to add more fresh food and flavor to their lives.

"Container gardening is a big thing right now," she says. "We give people ideas about what to do if they don't have a yard — just a porch or a deck in the city."

Most vegetables and herbs can be grown in containers, as long as the container is big enough for the plant's root system. Herbs, peppers, tomatoes and lettuces are popular container garden options.

"We sell a lot of lettuce pots," says Pahl. "You can just pick the leaves right off."

Every year, market vendors tweak their offerings. "We're always doing something a little different," Pahl says. "We always have new kinds of flowers and different herbs in the spring. We look in the seed catalogs and say, 'This look neat! Let's try growing it!'"

Chesapeake Greenhouse's John Maniscalco grows hydroponic lettuce and herbs in his Eastern Shore greenhouse. "I have four new lettuces I'll be bringing to the market this year," he says, "and a few new herbs, like lime basil and lemon basil."

For vendors and customers, the market's start is a reliable marker of springtime.

"The opening of the market is a good jump-start," says Brett Rhodes, an assistant manager at Zeke's Coffee, a stand well known for its strong brew and long lines. "It means the weather's getting warmer, baseball's starting, and it's time to get on the golf course."

For city residents, opening day also means renewed access to local produce. "The thing I'm most excited about is the fresh local fruits and veggies," says Canton resident Christine Mason.

"It's the best grocery store you'll go to anywhere on the East Coast," says Robert Banks, market vendor and owner of Banksy's Cafe in the Lake Falls Village Shopping Center. "And there's not one unfriendly vendor at that market."

Early in the season, market shoppers should expect a limited selection of produce. "For the first few weeks, it'll be kale, collards, spring onions and spinach," says Bartenfelder. More varied produce, including asparagus and strawberries, will arrive closer to the first of May.

Even with a limited variety, market vendors say there are many ways to prepare the produce that will be available in early April. Pahl praises roasted kale and cauliflower chips, and Bartenfelder says his wife, Robin, "always has a pot of kale or collards on the stove."

Originally, the market was open only to farmers selling their produce, but over time, the vendor population has expanded. Today, the market includes about 50 farmers from Maryland and Pennsylvania, more than forty food vendors and about 35 crafters selling their wares in the "bazaar" section of the event.

The market draws between 5,000 and 10,000 visitors every Sunday, depending on the season; the busiest day is usually the Sunday before Thanksgiving.

Farmers stress that the market is a great place not only for local produce and meat, but also for inspiration and education. Albright chats with his customers about issues that include agriculture regulations and the best way to cook beef tips.

"When people come to the market and interact with farmers, they get educated and change their perceptions and thoughts about how to eat. They eat healthier," he says.

But market vendors are not just in the business of lecturing. For vendors and customers alike, the social aspect of the market is an important part of its charm.

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