Loyal customers sustain East Columbia farmers market

Columbia Flier

When Erika Freitag's son Lucas was 10 months old, a farmer gave him his first apple at the East Columbia Branch library farmers market.

"I had this little bitty one in this stroller with this monstrous apple," she said.

The memory is fresh for Freitag, and it has brought her back to the farmers market for a decade.

Freitag said even though the market now has four vendors, fewer than in its heyday, she can still get all the produce she needs at the market.

"We know the practices [the farmers] use when they're growing vegetables," Freitag said. "It's also nice to know you're buying locally and supporting people you've been supporting for 10 years."

After the 2013 season, the Howard County Farmers Market Board discontinued the East Columbia library market as well as the Glenwood library location.

At that time, the East Columbia farmers market was doing well, according to farmers market vendor Jim Crebs, of Tomatoes Etc. Produce and Herb Farm.

"It was a really busy market," Crebs said. "We had a really good farmers market here with lots of vendors and lots of people showing up to purchase goods from us."

Howard County Agricultural Development Manager Kathy Zimmerman said the thought in 2013 was that fewer markets would make larger markets and create a stronger customer base.

Both markets have since reopened independently.

Vendors from the East Columbia library market coordinated with the library and the county and came back the following year. The Glenwood farmers market returned this season.

The East Columbia library location is one of the oldest farmers markets still operating in the county, Zimmerman said.

"It's important that we give the consumers what they want," Zimmerman said. "That area, of East Columbia library, may not see as much fresh fruit or even be able to have the opportunity to talk to a farmer without the farmers market coming to their area."

Zimmerman has advocated for the market since its closing, including this season when a county sign, now corrected, erroneously said the market was closed.

Crebs said the closed sign was frustrating and he thought it might not have been a priority for anyone to change it.

"We're trying to sell here and make a living," Crebs said. "I've been here for I think 10 years straight."

However, despite the Board's decision to drop the farmers market and the closed sign, Crebs said his business is still thriving.

"The con is that people left here to go sell some of the other markets that I guess they thought were a little busier," Crebs said. "The benefit is, yeah, we're still here."

All four vendors said they have had no problem sustaining their business because of loyal customers like Freitag.

"This market was my first market, so I started really well. I got really a lot of new customers, and they were following me all the time," said Renata Alanovic, who is in her third year at the market and sells baked goods. "They came year after year."

At the same time, Alanovic said new vendors give up before taking the time to develop a customer base.

"They need to give it time, a little time. Nobody can immediately have a huge amount of customers," Alanovic said. "People don't know who you are. They need to try your product."

Alanovic said her following of customers has allowed her to open up her own shop in the coming months on Snowden River Parkway, Renata's Tasty Bites, which will sell European baked goods.

Zimmerman, who grew up on a farm, said she understands the importance of ensuring farms remain economically viable.

"As a consumer, I want to know where my food is coming from. I want to know that it's the best food I can get and that I'm providing the best food for my family," Zimmerman said.

The East Columbia Farmers Market, located at 6600 Cradlerock Way, is open Thursdays 2 to 6 pm through Nov. 12.

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