Kathy Barthol, of Columbia, and her English bulldog, Dewey, contentedly strolled through the farmers market at the East Columbia library recently.
Barthol had already purchased eggplant and corn, and she was thinking of making eggplant parmesan for dinner. "I usually come for the corn and see if anything else looks good," she said.
On a recent hot Thursday afternoon, Barthol was among dozens of people visiting the market, which at eight years old is the longest-running one in Howard County. The shoppers chatted with vendors in front of colorful displays of early summer bounty, including tomatoes, corn, eggplant, cucumbers, squash, blueberries, nectarines and a whole lot more.
They smelled the coffee and chose baked goods with help from their children. They purchased chicken, pork, beef and eggs from local farms.
"We've been coming here for years," said Polly Lehtonen, of Columbia, who was in the transformed parking lot with her husband, Alfred. "We're supporters of buying locally."
They're not alone. According to Kathy Zimmerman, agriculture marketing specialist for the Howard County Economic Development Authority, farmers markets in Howard County are "doing very well."
In 2010, two markets were added, one at the St. John's Episcopal Church, in Ellicott City, and one at Howard County General Hospital, in Columbia, bringing the total to five. One or two more might be added in 2012, she said.
"The demand for locally grown food has grown exponentially over the last few years," she said, "especially in an area like Howard County, where the consumer is very well-educated and well-read."
Zimmerman said locally grown food is fresher, tastes better and more nutritious. Plus, buying food at farmers markets keeps dollars in the community.
It's also better for the environment, she said, because "you're lowering the carbon footprint of your food" by reducing the distance it travels.
The farmers markets in Howard County are producer-only markets, meaning farmers can only sell what they grow or make. Zimmerman said. Even baked goods and cheeses are made with ingredients grown on the farm.
Lois and Dean Trout, for example, sell cakes, cupcakes, cookies, breads and pies made with farm-fresh ingredients. "This is all from our own place to here," said Dean Trout, as mothers and their children surveyed the selections in Ellicott City.
Each baked item was labeled with its ingredients. For example, the cupcakes, which sell for six for $6, contain flour, sugar, eggs, baking powder, butter, sugar and sprinkles.
For many Howard County residents, shopping at one or more farmers markets is a three-season habit, since the markets start in early May and continue through October or November. Debbie Lieberman, of Ellicott City, said she tries to shop at the market at St. John's Episcopal Church every week.
"I want to support the local farms," she said. "It's fresh, didn't travel far, all that good stuff." During her recent visit, she purchased new potatoes and onions. "I'll throw that together and add some rosemary," she said.
Opportunity for vendors
For vendors, the farmers markets offer a chance to sell their goods at retail prices, get the word out about their products and mingle with people who appreciate what they do.
Louise Keckler, who sells at four farmers markets, including the East Columbia one in Howard County, said most of the produce grown at her Orchard Country Produce Farm, in Gardners, Pa., is sold through community-supported agriculture (CSA) subscriptions. The farmers markets serve as drop-off points for the CSA, give the farm and its offerings visibility, and provide a way to sell items not included in the weekly CSA package.
Standing behind tables laden with squash, broccoli, okra, tomatoes, cherries, black raspberries and more, Keckler said people like to know they are buying from the people who grew the food.
"We've been doing farmers markets for about 40 years," said Shirley Lewis, of Lewis' Orchards, in Cavetown. The farm, with almost 100 acres of orchards, sells most of its apples to processors, she said. But it also sells produce at six farmers markets a week, including the Howard County ones of East Columbia, Oakland Mills and Glenwood. "The people here are so appreciative of fresh produce," she said of Howard County shoppers.