WASHINGTON – At least one part of the farming business is booming in Maryland: Farmers’ markets jumped from only 23 in 1990 to 65 this year and can be found in all but two counties in the state, agriculture officials said.
“They appeal to small farmers like us because it is a chance to get a better deal,” said Charlene Dilworth, a Denton farmer who has sold produce at farmers’ markets in Bowie, St. Michael’s and Washington, D.C., since the 1980s.
More than 700 vendors sell their products in farmers’ markets throughout the state and about 35,000 people shop at them, said Tony Pratt, farmers’ market coordinator for the Maryland Department of Agriculture.
Most of the state’s markets are in the Baltimore and Washington metropolitan areas, Pratt said. Only Somerset and Queen Anne’s do not have a farmers’ market.
If the markets are sometimes the only opportunity for farmers to sell their produce at retail prices, for consumers they usually mean healthier and fresher products.
“People seem to express a preference on that,” said Valerie Connelly, an official with the Maryland Farm Bureau, who said the markets enjoy “huge support” from the communities where they are located.
Pratt said the markets also give farmers a chance to do informal “market research” on their products, since almost all customers ask details about how the produce was grown and they usually offer farmers suggestions on other crops.
“People ask us about how we spray,” said Dilworth. “(They) ask us to grow different things, and we will try it.”
Dilworth, who grows mostly beans, sweet corn and peppers, has been asked to grow different types of lettuce or yellow beans, for instance. Customers will even ask for tips for their own garden, she said.
The interaction between farmers and customers builds trust and friendship, said Crystal Callahan, a farmer in Cordova. Beyond the usual questions about pesticides and products, Callahan and her customers even exchange recipes.
“Like zucchini preserve. I had never heard of that before,” she said.
Callahan, who sells corn, melons, tomatoes, beans and other produce at several farmers’ markets on the Eastern Shore, said the markets also serve another purpose. She said the Cambridge farmers’ market, for example, is almost like a meeting place for the community.
Customers know the products are fresh at the markets, Callahan said. “And if not they are going to come back and tell you.”