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Howard County farmers market vendors chasing customer base

When Shirley Lewis was a vendor at the first Howard County Farmers Market in the late 1990s, she would pack up two trucks of fresh fruit from her orchard in Cavetown to sell at the Oakland Mills Village Center.

In the years that have followed, Lewis has seen the markets to be as plentiful as the produce she sells four days a week in Howard County. But there's one problem, she said: the consumer base hasn't sprouted as quickly as the markets themselves.

"When a market started going into every village, every town, it hurt," said Lewis, who runs Lewis Orchards. "There's just too darn many."

As more markets opened up, Lewis said, crowds got smaller, and now it takes her four days to make what she used to in one day in Howard County.

"I'm doing well, don't get me wrong, and I'm pleased with the markets I go to," she said. "And I can see why organizers, why people, want markets right in their own community ... but Howard County is such a concentrated population that it's split up our customer base by having all these different markets."

Howard County has five farmers markets — three in Columbia and one in Ellicott City and Cooksville — that operate Wednesday through Sunday.

"It's overkill," said Jim Crebs, who owns Tomatoes Etc. Produce Farm in Westminster. "It hurts the big farmers that do this for a living. We sell a good product at a good price, but there's just too many markets in this little county. Business has slowed dramatically. We only do about half the business we used to here."

Kathy Zimmerman, agriculture marketing specialist for the Howard County Economic Development Authority, said the number of markets in the county has fluctuated over the years, spiking with the rise in popularity of the local food movement. By 2005, when Zimmerman started working for HCEDA, the one Oakland Mills market had spawned an additional three markets in the county.

A market on Cedar Lane closed in 2006 because of a lack of vendors, leaving the county with three. Two more markets were added in 2008 — one in Ellicott City and another in Columbia — to bring the total to five. Anywhere from seven to 10 vendors are at each market, plus several guest vendors.

Markets growing 'very fast'

Zimmerman said markets in Maryland have grown "very fast" in the last three to five years.

"We have tripled the number of markets in the state, but we haven't grown the consumer base as fast as we have the markets," she said. "Every village, every town wants a farmers market. But when you do that, you're pulling from the same consumer base."

That's taken a toll on farms like the TLV Tree Farm in Glenelg, whose owners have been selling at Maryland markets for 20-25 years, said Jen Poston, a partner at the farm.

"We have records from back then, when we just sold fruits and vegetables," Poston said. "They made more money than we do now with our diverse portfolio of vegetables, fruits, eggs, everything. There's just so many choices for one person, so many markets to go to. Sometimes we wind up taking a lot of produce home with us."

Still, some local farmers said profits in Howard County are up this year, and John Dove, a member of the Howard County Farmers Market Board, said they had more vendor applications this year than ever. With a steady increase of customers over the last two years, Zimmerman said anywhere from 300 to 500 people attend each day of the county's markets. But, she said, there's room for improvement.

"Until the farmers are selling out of their stuff every week, we don't have enough consumers," Zimmerman said.

So the Howard County Farmers Market Board — which was established last year and is made up of five members and Zimmerman, who serves as a non-voting adviser — have spent the off-season ramping up their marketing on Facebook and with educational outreach. The solution to a split consumer base, Zimmerman said, is two-fold: create a sense of community surrounding the markets and make the markets an attraction, either through guest vendors selling anything from wine to crafts, or musical groups performing at the weekend markets.

"The board's trying to bring in music, more guest vendors, things for people to look forward to," she said. "To increase the consumer base, you have to make it an event for families. I liken it to making memories for you and your children."

In other words, Dove said, "We need something that's 'happening.' We need to have it be fun, exciting. I'd say we have successful markets for where we are, but there's always ways to be better."

Closing, condensing or relocating markets may be an option, too, said Dove, of Love Dove Farms in Woodbine, just as the Howard County General Hospital market replaced the one that closed on Cedar Lane.

"There definitely can be some changes made," he said. "It was discussed at our last meeting, and the board understands that there needs to be some adjustments. You have to be able to show continuous growth with each market, and each vendor should be making more money than last year. We shouldn't have people losing money — that's not what the market should be and it's not what we want."

Any decision to close or open a market would have to follow discussions with the community and a serious look at what regions could be better served by a market, Dove said. While Columbia has three markets, for example, areas like North Laurel and Elkridge have none.

"It depends on what works best for each community," Dove said. "People don't want to see markets leave their community, but there's communities that really want a market and you don't want to over-extend yourself."

Farmers don't want to over-extend themselves, either, and getting people to come to the markets "is a difficult battle," Dove said. It's hard to get to the size of markets as the ones in Silver Spring or downtown Baltimore, he said, because "you have to have to be able to get the big farms coming from out-of-county or out-of-state in order to get the crowds," but the farmers won't come unless there's a crowd to sustain their business.

'A certain customer base'

With so many markets and so many farmers, determining which markets are successful or not may be difficult as each farm falls into a different "niche," said Jason Caulder, of Breezy Willow Farms in West Friendship, which has a "solid" turnout at the Saturday market in Glenwood.

"For us, this is the only market we do and it's a small thing that fits into our business, and it's not a struggling market by any means," Caulder said. "We've been doing a CSA (community-supported agriculture, where consumers literally purchase a share of the farm's produce outright) for about 12 years and that works out better for us. When you come to a farmers market, you don't know how much to grow, to pick, even if you do have a ballpark idea. Every farm has a different focus — some focus on their CSAs, or selling to a grocery store or restaurant."

Though each farm has a different focus, Caulder said, all are trying to do the same thing: provide fresh food to the community in whatever way they can.

"We have a certain customer base in Howard County, the people who want to eat healthy and support the markets because they understand the concept of buying local," Dove said. "As the farm business continues to grow and the community wants to support our local agriculture and farms, the markets can sustain themselves."

There are plenty of reasons to support the local farmer's markets, Zimmerman said. The food is fresher — Lewis' peaches, for example, are picked right off the tree the day before a market — and locally grown, which is a boon to the regional farmers.

"The farmers are doing everything in their power to grow the safest, best food," Zimmerman said. "It's so important to buy locally. You know the farmer and you can talk to them about how they grow the food."

That's why Crebs has photos at the ready on his smart phone to show his customers how he grows and harvests his food.

"We like people who walk the foodie walk as well as talk the foodie talk," he said. "I explain how to prepare meals and just try to inform people as much as I can about the food. You'll never see food like what we have, like French filet beans picked yesterday, at Whole Foods. As hard as this job is, it's rewarding because of the people. People always smile when they buy our food, and that's awesome."

Knowing where their food comes from was the chief reason for coming cited by customers at several farmers markets. It's the main reason Phyllis Parker comes to the Glenwood market, as well as a desire to help support the local economy.

"I think that's why most people come," she said. "Besides, it's fresher and better than the grocery stores."

Linda Grimm, also of Glenwood, said the markets are "a great thing" for the county and the local economy.

"The quality of produce you're getting here is so much higher than at the supermarket," she said. "Besides, it's summer time. 'Tis the season."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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