TAKOMA PARK – It’s 9:59 a.m. when a woman walks up to Carol and George Spence’s vegetable stand at the Takoma Park farmers’ market and asks about the zucchini.
Carol Spence shakes her head. The market won’t open until 10 a.m., a start time that is strictly enforced to keep early birds from snatching up all the best produce at the successful market.
Seconds after the woman steps away, a bell sounds and the rush of sales begin.
That rush is repeated every Sunday, as more than 1,000 people browse about 20 stands of vegetables, fruits, flowers, cheeses and breads at the Takoma Park market, whose success mirrors the growing popularity of such markets across the state and nation.
In Maryland, farmers’ markets have gone from just 20 in 1991 to 74 today, with at least one in every county. Nationally, they have almost doubled since 1994, reaching 3,100 at last count.
People come for conversation, community — and food, too.
“The best thing about a farmers’ market is you know exactly where that food is coming from,” said Joan Schulz, the Maryland Department of Agriculture’s farmers’ market coordinator.
She said markets range from a few tables set up in a library parking lot to operations like Takoma Park, where people line up to buy fresh eggs half an hour before the market opens.
On a recent Sunday, Laurel Avenue in Takoma Park’s Old Town was full of people — from older folks leaning on canes to toddlers. They knocked on cantaloupes, squeezed tomatoes, inspected pumpkins and conversed.
Shoppers were elbow to elbow at the Spences’ long table. They bought tomatoes, eggplant and green beans, but they also met the man who planted and harvested their food.
“They form a relationship with the farmer,” Schulz said.
George Spence, 67, wearing a striped button-down shirt tucked into his jeans, is always ready to talk about how he grows his produce on his Calvert County farm.
He started running a farm at 13 years old, when his father died. In his relaxed, quiet voice, Spence said markets do well because people eat more vegetables.
“I think people are more health conscious now,” he said, as he stuffed long green beans into small baskets.
Only 10 minutes into the market, the Spences’ assistant, Elinor Lichtenberg, was already busy replenishing the tomato selection.
“The priority is helping people,” said Lichtenberg, 23. “And then just restocking as you can.”
People walked by, munching on bread and pastries purchased from a Baltimore baker’s table. A juggler entertained children. The street smelled like melons and flowers and everything — from shiny peppers to the sky — was bright.
“There is just an electric air about these markets,” said Susan Planck, who sells tomatoes, eggplants and beans that she grows on her organic farm in Purcellville, Va. “No doors, no locks, no clocks, no time sheets. It’s all self-regulating.”
Planck helped start this market in 1983 with eight vendors.
“It was immensely popular from the very first day,” she said.
Then, Takoma Park was one of the few options in Maryland. But markets have since sprouted nearby in Bethesda, Silver Spring and College Park.
In urban areas vendors often come from surrounding states — at the Takoma Park market they cannot come from more than 125 miles away. Vendors at some Anne Arundel County markets are required to be from the county, Schulz said.
Schulz pointed out that all markets are different. The Carroll County farmers’ market is indoors and sells breakfast and lunch. St. Mary’s County offers an Amish market with cheeses, produce and quilted crafts. Some markets are weekly, others daily. Some are seasonal and others operate almost all year.
But they all share one thing that keeps people like Abby Lenhart, 24, coming back.
“I think the produce is much better quality,” said Lenhart, a Baltimore resident who was shopping for squash at the Spences’ stand.
But Schulz warned that communities have to support their farmers’ markets. It is not uncommon for markets to see a lot of business at first and then suffer once the novelty wears off.
“It’s not, ‘Would you like a farmers’ market?'” she said. “It’s, ‘Would you support a farmers’ market?'”
A little past noon, George Spence’s table had empty spots where beans, eggplant and squash used to be. Surveying the crowd, the Lower Marlboro resident said the market is about more than fresh vegetables.
“I think what makes a good market is a community like this that has a good gathering place,” he said.
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