Even in winter, 32nd Street farmers market thrives with loyal customers

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The farmers' market in Waverly draws 1,500 customers a week in the winter, compared with 4,000 in the summer.

Wearing thick mittens on a raw, rainy Saturday morning, Marc Rey was busy tracking down missing portable bathrooms at the 32nd Street Farmers Market in Waverly, because the company that provides them was running late.

"People stay in bed when it's like this," said Rey, 73, of Tuscany-Canterbury, who is president of the farmers' market board.

But hundreds of customers were milling around the market and about 40 of the usual 50 vendors, including popular anchors like South Mountain Creamery, Zeke's Coffee and Blacksauce Kitchen, were on hand. Miranda Betts, running the Farm to Face falafel stand, was much more interested in selling food than she was in finding portapotties.

"To tell you the truth, I don't use them," she said.

Far from miserable, most market goers looked downright happy as they shopped for everything from fruits and vegetables to lamb, coffee, Caribbean food, Cajun peanut butter and 'turtle' scones with semi-sweet chocolate, caramel and peanuts. At least one vendor was selling winter clothing.

"It's not that cold," said Naomi Levin, of Charles Village, perusing produce with her husband, Ben Passey, and their son, Aaron Passey, 2. For them, the weekly Saturday morning market, the only year-round market in Baltimore, is an opportunity to see folks they know and to "people-watch," Passey said.

The market also provides staples of the family's health-conscious diet, and it's where they got their Thanksgiving turkey.

"You can get real food here," Levin said. "We get a lot of our calories for the week."

Most people think of farmers markets as rites of spring and summer, but the 32nd Street market, set up on a Baltimore City parking lot between 33rd and 32nd streets at the intersection of University Parkway, Merryman Lane and Barclay Street, does a healthy business in winter, too.

The number of weekly customers — 1,500 during market hours of 7 a.m. to noon on Saturdays in January and February — is a far cry from the 4,000 a week that the market draws in July and August, Rey said. But, he said, 1,500 people are more than enough to keep the 36-year-old market economically viable.

"We have a fiercely loyal customer following, so even on a miserable day like this, customers show up," said Rey, a retired English teacher at Western High School. (He taught Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.)

Though most of the market's clientele live in Waverly, Guilford, Abell, Oakenshawe, Charles Village, Roland Park, Bolton Hill and Reservoir Hill, Rey said he even has a longtime customer from Annapolis, who comes in the winter as well as the rest of the year.

He still remembers the market opening amid deep drifts of snow after the back-to-back storms in February 2010, and last winter, when it was so cold in January that he wore a ski mask and set up outdoor heaters. Rey said this year’s Jan. 22-23 blizzard was bad enough and predicted far enough in advance that he and the board decided there was nothing else to do but close.

“We like to say we only close for hurricanes and blizzards,” he said. “This  was our blizzard.”

The timing was so bad, with snow that began to fall Friday night through Saturday, that Rey could make his own prediction about what the state of the parking lot would be.

He knew that, “the lot will have a good foot of snow on it,” he said. “We can’t plow all that.”

He was also concerned for the safety of customers and vendors, who come from as far away as the Eastern Shore and were already calling or emailing to say they wouldn’t take the risk.

Warmer weather soon began to melt the snow, and the city government, which earns revenue from people renting spaces in the parking lot, had it cleared by the next Saturday.The only real problem was that crews pushed the snow into mounds that blocked some of the parking spaces, Rey said. But winter is a slower time anyway, so the loss of spaces wasn’t as big a problem.

Rey said he and his vendors consider closing the market only as a last resort.

"This is a mild winter compared to last," Rey said. And he said the market's philosophy is to stay open unless it's impossible.

"Our policy is, you're not going to have ideal weather, but we're not going to close for a few flakes of snow or 15-degree weather," he said. "In our storage shed (located nearby on Abell Avenue), we've got salt, we've got shovels."

Rey said several customers and vendors have told him: "The cows are still producing milk. The chickens are still laying eggs."

Statewide, 10 farmers' markets operate year-round, including in Silver Spring and Takoma Park, which, like, the Waverly market, accept food stamps through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. Other year-round markets include those in Chestertown, Kensington, Bethesda, Gaithersburg, Frederick, Hagerstown and Salisbury, according to the Maryland Farmers Market Association, which keeps a database of markets on its website, but does not collect specific date on sales or attendance.

"All three (year-round) markets continue to thrive throughout the winter," said Michele Levy, of Remington, deputy director of the Baltimore-based association, who calls herself a weekly shopper at the market in Waverly. "Though vendors and shopper attendance (are) less robust than during the summer market, sales — and spirits — remain high."

Levy said that based on her own observations and conversations with farmers and other vendors at the Waverly market, "There is tremendous consumer demand for year-round access to fresh, high-quality, locally-produced foods. In many ways, the greatest testament to the need for and interest in the winter market is simply its continued operation. For farmers to travel into the city, regardless of weather or temperature, the investment must be worth the return.

"Baltimore City market patrons generate sufficient revenue for farmers and producers during the winter months to ensure the market's viability," she continued. "Year-round markets play a critical role in building a robust local food system. They facilitate local, seasonal eating, providing much-needed support for local farmers who depend on farmers markets for their livelihood, and reinforce that a locally-sourced diet ispossible throughout the winter months."

Cold and clammy

Even for some regulars, wet winter weather can be daunting. "You probably get more people in the snow," Rey said.

But Janet Felsten, of Roland Park, didn't stay away. "It could be a lot worse," said Felsten. She said she comes to the market "pretty much every week" and that "I always run into people I know. I have great conversations. I come away with more than food."

"The cold doesn't matter," declared environmental scientist Sarah Koser, 39, of Mayfield. "It's more important to get your fruits and vegetables from a local farm."

"We come every single week," said Nathaniel Comfort, 53, of Oakenshawe, a professor who teaches History of Medicine at Johns Hopkins University. "We want what's in season," he said, referring to himself and his service dog, Sailor.

With new technology and more urban farming, "in-season" is a relative term. Many people are able to grow vegetables like tomatoes in special greenhouse-like "tunnels," Rey said, "and they taste like summer tomatoes."

"The year-round winter markets do well in Maryland, particularly with a climate in which many crops can be grown year-round and in tunnels or protected environments," said Amy Crone, founder and executive director of the farmers market association.

"We're going to go with tunnels this year," said Hal Zimmerman of Thanksgiving Farm in Frederick County, as he sold produce to a steady stream of market goers Saturday.

The market in winter is worth most vendors' while, even farmers who drive several hours from as far away as the Eastern Shore and sell at many of the region's farmers' markets. At the 32nd Street market, they can earn anywhere from several hundred dollars to $2,000 on a Saturday morning, Rey said, though he stressed that he's only privy to what vendors are earning when there's an occasional robbery at the market, which has its own off-duty city police officer, Wayne Early, stationed there.

The only concession that Mark Stephenson of Salisbury-based Nuts to You makes to winter is that, "In the bad weather, I don't bring everything out." But he was still selling almonds, walnuts and pecans Saturday, as well as jars of Cajun peanut butter and other concoctions.

Cindi Umbarger, of Woolsey Farm in Churchville in Harford County, has been selling lamb and beef at the Waverly market since 2001, and has seen it grow, even in winter.

"It's so much busier," said Umbarger, who shares a stand with three other vendors that sell eggs, sausage, honey and poultry. There are three times as many vendors now as there were when she first came, she said. "It's really come a long way."

The previous week, fellow vendor Andy Bachman of Andy's Eggs and Poultry sold 354 dozen eggs.

"I've had a tremendous week, in the dead of winter," Umbarger said.

"I'm not complaining," agreed Zimmerman.

Music and petitions

One of the biggest draws at the market on Saturday was the stand run by Pam and Mike Miller, who own Charlottetown Farm in Freeland in north Baltimore County, and sell artisan cheeses and goat milk "confections" at the Waverly market. It wasn't so much the food that lured customers as it was the propane heater they set up nearby.

"We love it here," said Pam Miller, who was wearing four layers of clothing. She has been selling food at the market for three years and said, "Saturday is my favorite day of the week."

Also braving the weather was Phyllis Jaslow, a longtime supporter of the Village Learning Place, a community-run library and center, who comes every week to hand out fliers promoting "2nd Wednesdays at the VLP," a free monthly cultural series of talks, presentations and concerts that she started in an effort to draw more adults to the VLP.

Also there as usual were people handing out the free newspaper The Spark, whose stated goals include revolution by the working class. Several people representing the watchdog group Food and Water Watch tried to get people to sign petitions supporting a proposed state law that would hold poultry companies accountable for pollution.

"It's a little chilly," said one of them, University of Maryland medical student Sam Kimmel, 22, of Federal Hill. But he was warmed by the fact that he garnered six signatures in 20 minutes.

Some of the market's amateur musicians, who play for fun or donations, took a pass Saturday. "Snow and rain keep me from my appointed rounds," said accordion player and retired social worker Mark Vidor, of Rodgers Forge. But he still came to the market as a customer and bought a breakfast danish and a cup of coffee.

"It's a great way to start a Saturday morning," he said.

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If you go

The 32nd Street Farmers’ Market is open from 7 a.m. to noon Saturdays in the parking lot at East 32nd and Barclay streets. 410-917-1496 or 32ndstreetmarket.org.

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