BELTSVILLE- The popularity of farm-fresh produce has brought about a boom in the number of farmers markets in Maryland, but that success has brought problems of its own.
“There just doesn’t seem to be enough farmers out there to satisfy the demand that consumers have for these markets,” said Pat McMillan, assistant secretary for the Maryland Department of Agriculture.
About 150 farmers, vendors and market managers met Thursday at the Maryland Farmers Market Conference where the MDA and other agencies discussed food safety regulations, licensing and federal nutrition benefits programs.
“One of the purposes of this conference is to bring everyone together to see what we can do collectively and individually to make these more vibrant venues for our farmers to sell and sustain this enterprise that has been growing in leaps and bounds for decades,” McMillan said.
At farmers markets, consumers can buy local produce, poultry, dairy and meat directly from farmers or vendors. There are 110 farmers markets in the state, and at least one is available in every county, according to the tourism office. There were no figures available for the rate of growth of markets in the state.
The market season typically begins in May and runs through October or November, and several markets are yearlong. Each market is individually managed and can determine from how far away participants may bring their products and still be considered local, said Amy Crone, agricultural marketing specialist at the MDA. The term “local” can encompass farms in Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia and Pennsylvania.
The high cost of breaking into the farming industry was noted as one reason for the deficit of farmers able to supply the markets. McMillan said agricultural land in Maryland is routinely sold for $7,000 to $10,000 an acre. He said that supporting small-scale farms is the best way to help the industry grow.
“Farmers markets are one of the only entry points, practically speaking, for someone interested in farming that maybe wasn’t born into the occupation, to get their foot in the door and actually make a living at it,” said McMillan.
Jennie Dorrell owns Lavender Hills, a family-run farm in Lineboro that has produce and livestock. Dorrell agreed that land costs are an impediment to starting farms. She got a good deal on her land because she knew the seller, and since then has been able to slowly expand her operation.
“If you weren’t born with a silver spoon in your mouth, you just kind of have to do things as the money becomes available,” Dorrell said.
Dorrell has been selling at farmers markets in Maryland for three years. She said her farm does not produce enough to be able to sell to grocery stores, so farmers markets are a great venue. Dorrell said the road to becoming profitable can have a steep learning curve, but she is glad the MDA offers many resources to help along the way.
“One of the hardest things is learning how to grow enough to have a continuous supply of products to bring to the markets,” Dorrell said. “The Department of Agriculture has been great in providing information and classes to help farmers in this state be successful.”