At first glance, a grass-roots farmers' market in the covered parking lot of a suburban mall seems a bit incongruous.
But that's the charm, and convenience, of the Westfield Annapolis Winter Farmers' Market, held every other Sunday at Westfield Annapolis Mall from January into April.
Patrons can park their car, pop into Macy's to buy a Gucci handbag or designer sweater, then walk across the lot and stock up on potatoes, turnips, cabbage, eggs and chicken, or enjoy a bowl of homemade Italian chicken and vegetable soup.
"I love this market because we've got a little bit of everything," said Brenda Conti, an Arnold resident and longtime vendor at Anne Arundel's only winter farmers' market. Conti was instrumental in launching the market several years ago.
"About six years ago, I began working with Lisa Barge, the agricultural marketing and development manager of the Anne Arundel County Economic Development Corp.," said Conti, who sells winter vegetables, jams and granola, honey from bees at the old Naval Academy dairy farm and other food items.
"We wanted to start a farmers' market that was centrally located in the Annapolis area. So Lisa talked to the people here at the mall, and they invited us to come on down," Conti said.
The market officially began five years ago and moved to the garage area last year, taking advantage of the ample parking for customers. "Our customer base has been constantly building since we made the move," Conti said.
On a recent Sunday, there were about a dozen vendors and a small stream of customers.
Nevertheless, the variety of foodstuffs and wares offered by vendors from across the state includes cookies, confections, farm-raised chicken, beef, pork, eggs, broccoli, kale, collard greens and other cold-weather crops, plus sandwiches and soups. There's coffee from the Cosmic Bean, a Millersville company.
Jacob Shlagel, proprietor of Shlagel Farms in Waldorf, said he's been selling at the market almost since it started. A little after noon last Sunday, he had sold out his broccoli and was running low on other winter greens.
"We have a certain amount of regulars, a pretty good customer base, that we see every week," Shlagel said. "People seem to like it here. They tend to stay around and browse and visit and get something to eat."
Mary and Joseph Lawrence of Annapolis are among those loyal patrons. They've been faithful customers nearly every Sunday for four years and are on a first-name basis with many of the vendors.
"We want to support local agriculture — that's a big deal for us," Joseph Lawrence said. "It's important to us not just to support agriculture but to support real agriculture. It's also part of making a healthier lifestyle choice, not just for us, but for the community."
"And it doesn't hurt that the people we are supporting here are lovely people," added Mary Lawrence, who said she believes the milk they buy at the market, the product of grass-fed cows, is better than supermarket varieties in taste and texture.
John Wrang, owner of Triple J Farm near Federalsburg on the Eastern Shore, is among the vendors with whom the Lawrences are on a first-name basis. He's in his fifth year at the market.
"I have a group of extremely loyal customers here. I couldn't ask for better," Wrang said.
He has compiled an Internet database of customers and fellow vendors, and keeps them informed about new products, new vendors and other news at the market via email. He said it helps the market's community stay in touch.
"I'd say 90 percent of my sales are to repeat customers. Some of them have been coming here for years," Wrang said. "We sell a lot of our free-range, pasture-raised eggs and pasture-raised meat chickens."
On Sunday, Katy Helfrich, an intern with the Anne Arundel Economic Development Corp. and a first-year student at the University of Baltimore School of Law, was seated behind a small table reading a tome on property law.
Helfrich was signing people up with a program that enables them to use credit cards and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program cards at the market. When traffic is slow, she uses the lull to hit the books.
"It's great to get out here and have an opportunity to help this community," said Helfrich, who added that the open-air market is a welcome change from long hours in the classroom. "I was really lucky to come across the opportunity to do this."
The Westfield Annapolis Farmers' Market will be open from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Sundays, Feb. 3 and 17, March 3, 17 and 31 and April 7 and 21. It's located in the orange parking garage next to Macy's department store in Westfield Annapolis Mall, 2002 Annapolis Mall Road, Annapolis. For information, call 410-222-7410 or 410-349-0317, email email@example.com or go to http://www.aaedc.org.