With the end of the Howard County farmers market season scarcely a month away, the Farmers Market Board is considering closing two markets for good.
"There's been a lot of discussion, but nothing has been set in stone," said John Dove, owner of Love Dove Farms in Woodbine and president of the Howard County Farmers Market Board. "We're just trying to decide what's best for the community, the markets and the vendors."
The county has five markets: three in Columbia and one each in Ellicott City and Glenwood. This summer, Kathy Zimmerman, agriculture marketing specialist for the Howard County Economic Development Authority, said that while the number of markets have grown "very fast" across the state, the consumer base hasn't grown as quickly.
That's taken its toll, especially in Columbia, Zimmerman said.
"We have three markets in Columbia and they're competing with each other," she said.
Two of those markets — Sunday at the Oakland Mills Village Center and Friday at Howard County General Hospital — are doing better than the Thursday market at East Columbia Library. That's the oldest market in the county, Zimmerman said, and she'd "hate to see it closed."
The other market possibly facing closure, Zimmerman said, is the Saturday market at Glenwood Library. Zimmerman said her understanding from board members is that the market has never reached its "full potential" or gotten as popular as expected.
Dove said the board has to wait and see how vendors reported doing this year after the season ends, and Zimmerman wants to conduct a survey of all the farmers and customers to see "where we're really at." That would be the deciding factor on whether to close a market or not, she said.
"We have to talk to the vendors and see how it's going for them," Dove said. "Some of the markets aren't doing as well anymore. That's the key issue."
In the meantime, the end of the Howard County Farmers Market season is fast approaching. The Friday market at Howard County General Hospital closed Oct. 25; the rest of the markets have their last days of the season the week before Thanksgiving.
Zimmerman said that all of Howard County's markets have seen an increase this year, with some up 2 to 5 percent in both attendance and revenue. Normally, Zimmerman said, the markets see a dip in attendance after school starts in late August, but that hasn't been the case this year.
Even if the board decides to permanently close two markets, the markets may continue at those locations in some capacity. Several farms use the East Columbia market as pickup points for their community-supported agriculture (CSA) programs, which Dove said they could continue to do, and Zimmerman said other farmers have expressed interest in running one or both of the markets on their own, outside the umbrella of the board.
Any decision to close the markets is made by the board, which was established last year and is made up of five members and Zimmerman, who serves as a nonvoting adviser. Dove said any decision would come in January or February, before the board starts planning the next market season and fielding applications from vendors. This summer, Dove said the board had more vendor applications than ever before.
"It's hard, because the vendors want to do the markets. But if they're saying people aren't coming, it makes it tough," he said.