The Howard County farmers markets wrapped up their season last week, but at two of the markets, vendors packed up their trucks for the last time.
Sarah Keckler, of Orchard County Produce and Fruit Farm in Gardners, Pa., said vendors received a letter from the Howard County Farmers Market Board the first week in November, notifying them of the closing of the Thursday market at the East Columbia Library and the Saturday market at the Glenwood Library.
"After looking at other municipalities in the area, it appears too many markets are hurting our markets and producers," the letter read.
That's true, Keckler said. There are too many markets in Howard County and that hurts them all collectively, she said. But she and other vendors are opposed to closing the East Columbia market.
"The past couple of years, a lot of vendors have been added to markets without increasing the advertising or customer base," she said. "But this year, we had solid profits (at East Columbia) and I know other farmers have said the same thing. This year is just as good as last year. We haven't seen a drop-off."
The letter from the board also stated, "it was a difficult decision to make, but it had to be made for the betterment of the markets and community as a whole."
"There wasn't a concrete reason why the East Columbia market was shut out," Keckler said. "It was not the numbers (of customers or profit) that caused it to be shut."
The Saturday market at the Glenwood Library "never improved" since opening 10 years ago, said board member Jamie Brown, of TLV Tree Farm in Glenelg. The decision to close East Columbia was harder, Brown said.
"The last two years, vendors have complained about a lack of business," he said. "In order to make a market work, we want more vendors but need more customers. To make a bigger market we need fewer markets and more customer support. It's fifty-fifty: we get more consumers, we get more vendors. We're trying to concentrate the markets and grow them, but in order to do that we have to cut back. Maryland, in general, has way too many markets."
The three remaining markets are at Howard County General Hospital, the Miller Library and the Oakland Mills Village Center.
Prior to the decision to close the Thursday and Saturday markets, Howard County had five farmers markets from Wednesday through Sunday during the season. Three of those were in Columbia.
Brown said the board discussed closing the two markets at a meeting this summer "in the middle of the season," and made the final decision to close the East Columbia and Glenwood markets with the approval of those minutes last week.
Kathy Zimmerman, agriculture marketing specialist for the Howard County Economic Development Authority and non-voting board member, said a final verdict on the future of the East Columbia market would likely come in December, as vendors decide whether or not to come back to the location on their own, outside the umbrella of the board. She said she would help the vendors in any way she could, helping them secure the proper insurance, for example. Furthermore, Zimmerman said, the decision to close the markets might only extend to the coming year.
A survey will go out to all vendors at all markets before the end of the year, Zimmerman said, and the results of that survey will guide the board in future decisions.
But a survey should have gone out sooner, farmers at the East Columbia market said.
"No one asked me or the other vendors," said Jim Crebs, owner of Tomatoes, Etc., Produce Farm in Westminster, who's been at the East Columbia market for nine years. "We did do well. We did turn a profit. ... We were never asked how well it's doing, and no one ever questioned how our sales were. It's discouraging."
Crebs and Keckler are exploring options to stay at East Columbia with other vendors, while customers like Alfreda Hughes, of Oakland Mills, is keeping her fingers crossed.
"I was very disappointed to learn they may not be at the library next year," said Hughes, who's been following Lewis Orchards around the various Columbia markets for at least 20 years. "I think keeping the market there would be a good idea. The other markets, they're just not local. Here, they bring their things right here and it's nice and fresh, right out of the garden. For those of us who live here, it's nice to have."
Hughes would consider patronizing the Sunday market in Oakland Mills if the board extended those hours. It's hard to get to that one because of church, Hughes said, but Brown said various religious services in the area make for a good market.
"As churches let out, we get a lot of customers," he said. "And it's a mile from the Thursday market. It just doesn't make sense to have them so close together. ... We didn't make this decision lightly, or out of spite. We're doing it to try to build up our markets and make them stronger."