Since it opened in 1996, the Laurel Farmers Market has been a place where people come to buy fresh produce from Maryland farmers. Some of the farmers who set up stands in the market year after year are seen as old friends that customers see every Thursday, May through October.
The Laurel Farmers Market is sponsored by the Laurel Board of Trade, and in its early years, was located in Riverfront Park, before moving to an empty lot in the 300 block of Main Street in 1990. The market initially enjoyed a bustling business, but in recent years, it has gotten smaller and the number of farmers has dwindled to only three this year.
LBOT officials, who register the farmers free of charge, said even though some produce sellers have moved to larger venues, they are determined to keep the market alive.
"The farmers were mobbed this morning," Gail Reinhardt, the Board of Trade's administrative coordinator, said July 7. "We get from 75 to 100 people each week, so we want to build up the clientele to keep the market going because it's a fun place to go, and people would miss it."
To that end, this year, Board of Trade officials signed up a variety of vendors beyond farmers and extended the market's hours to 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. In the past, it opened at 10 a.m. and closed at 2 p.m.
"Most of the farmers come in the morning, and by early afternoon, when they sell out, they head out," said Reinhardt. "But I'm trying to get some farmers to do a 2 to 7 p.m. shift for people who come in on the evening commuter trains and walk up Main Street."
Michele Arsenault, president of the Board of Trade, said they don't have the grant money they received from the state in the past for advertising, so they are depending on word-of-mouth to attract farmers. Arsenault, who sells her hand-crafted jewelry at the market, said they plan to add other nonproduce vendors like herself at the site.
"Instead of just fruits and vegetables, we're trying to be more diverse this year," Arsenault said. "We don't want to be a flea market, but have fresh food and produce, and items that vendors make."
Those diverse vendors include Julie Dina-Sogbesan, of Laurel, who sells her special-recipe sugarless punch and funnel cakes at the market.
"I only did the punch for family and friends, but I made it for a Thanksgiving party once and received so many emails from people wanting the recipe, that I started selling it," she said. "I'm the first one to sell funnel cakes at the market, and I was crazy busy last week. One guy bought three funnel cakes. People driving down Main Street will see my sign, screech on their brakes and park."
Laurel resident Jide Oje did just that last week as he was leaving the post office on Main Street and saw the sign.
"This was my first time here," Oje said. "I saw the fresh vegetables and felt a bit guilty about not getting something more healthy, but I'll come back."
According to Arsenault, the Board of Trade may bring in entertainment later in the season and plant experts to talk about fall planting. But as they push for diversity at the farmers market, Board of Trade officials don't want to lose the close-knit flavor of the market that was in full evidence last week.
Last week, Ed Fountain was in the spot he's had for the past four years. Standing behind tables heavily laden with fresh fruits and vegetables from his farm in Greensboro, Fountain, a former school teacher, talked and joked with loyal customers.
"I used to go to Pikesville, but it was a drag with all of the Beltway traffic, and I like the people here. They are so nice," Fountain said as he told a customer that the Lodi apples at the end of one of his tables were early summer apples, best for applesauce versus eating them raw.
Just then, sisters Agnes and Fran Cinotti walked down the grassy incline behind Fountain's truck that was filled with corn, peaches, tomatoes, cucumbers, kale, green peppers, blackberries, blueberries, onions, potatoes, green beans, cabbage, eggs and squash.
"I'm so glad to see you. Welcome back," Agnes Cinotti said with a big smile. "They told me you weren't coming back this year, and I cried because I thought I wouldn't have tomatoes for the Fourth of July. He's wonderful and lets me pick what I want," she told a waiting customer as she picked out a large, plump cucumber for 50 cents.
"There are a couple of other good farmers here, but Ed is the best," said Fran Cinotti. "It's so good to see you, Ed, and you know I like the little tomatoes," she told Fountain.
"I know. That's why I have them," Fountain told her. "I sold out of cantaloupes. I was going to leave earlier but didn't because I heard you two were coming after you had your hair done."
Frank Anastasio, of Maryland City, stopped by Fountain's stand and in addition to buying fruits and vegetables, he thanked Fountain for giving him a recipe for the tops of beets, that most people throw away.
"He told me to cook the foliage tops like I do steamed spinach, with olive oil and spices, and it was great," he said.
"A customer gave me that recipe," Fountain said. "They're always giving me tips on how to cook stuff."
As she eyed Fountain's peaches and cucumbers, first-timer Michelle Abu asked, "How much do I have to buy?"
"You can buy any amount of anything you want," Fountain said as he waved goodbye to the Cinotti sisters.
"I'm sorry I didn't buy bologna today because nothing's better than a sandwich with fresh tomatoes," Agnes said as she walked away, and the chatter continued.
"You see most of these people every week, and I enjoy the fun conversations out here the most," Arsenault said. "We want to keep it like this."