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Farmers' markets boom county spreading idea


CAN YOU TELL THE difference between a Harford cucumber and one grown, say, on the Eastern Shore or in North Carolina?

They can look the same and smell the same and feel the same. They are likely grown from the same variety of seed.

Fresher? Maybe. Overnight or early morning deliveries from distant fields are obscuring that difference, although local produce does seem to promise that just-picked freshness that consumers don't expect from the growers in other states.

That's one of the main attractions of a farmers' market, when the locals bring their produce straight from farm to sell it directly to the consumer. That expectation is usually rewarded, with a ripe peach or a juicy fresh tomato. The belief that home-grown tastes better adds to that perception.

Better prices by buying direct from the producer is another advantage of the farmers' market. Shoppers may not compare prices with those of retail stores, but they typically feel they are saving by buying from the farmer.

Indeed, the farmers' market idea has sprouted up all over Harford County this year.

The Aberdeen Proving Ground community groups started a market at the post theater parking lot on Thursdays.

The county Farm Bureau opened a Saturday market at the new Wal-Mart in Abingdon.

Meantime, the 20-year-old Saturday market sponsored by the Bel Air Jaycees and the town continued to draw crowds of farmers and food shoppers. The midweek market shifted from Wednesday to Tuesday and to the Boulton Street parking lot from the parking garage in order to expand the offerings.

But agricultural planner Bill Amoss, who's working with the economic development agency, sees even greater opportunities for selling Harford farm products to local consumers.

Local food in the supermarket

One breakthrough is the promotion of locally grown produce in Harford supermarkets. Chain stores such as Klein's, Giant and Super Fresh have been working with local growers to sell their fruits and vegetables in season.

"It's locally grown produce week at Super Fresh," proclaimed one weekly flier. "We will sell a wide variety of fruits and vegetables grown on Maryland farms."

It's not an easy sale, because chains have long relied on regional and national wholesalers for a predictable, sustainable supply of garden produce to satisfy their customers' demand.

But the county's effort to introduce supermarket buyers to local growers last winter proved highly successful and will be expanded to other Harford food stores next year, Mr. Amoss said.

Another project for the county development agency is to coordinate the sale of local produce to county school lunch programs and to Proving Ground mess facilities.

With the aid of the new county agricultural directory, the county agency hopes to steer the public to those among Harford's 600 farmers who sell their products at the source.

Keeping produce at home

Helping farmers connect better with the local marketplace was a major objective identified in a study of Harford agriculture's future that was produced this spring by a county task force.

Instead of hauling their produce to the large wholesale markets in Jessup and Baltimore, Harford farmers could do better by selling more to local customers, the study noted. Consumers and local dealers would also benefit.

Farmers aren't the only ones promoting the idea of buying locally in Harford County. The Chamber of Commerce is asking its 1,400 members to take the pledge to patronize local businesses when possible.If quality and price are the same, buy locally and strengthen the county economy, it urges.

The chamber campaign is not aimed at erecting trade barriers but at making local businesses aware of local goods and services that can keep more money in the local economy.

The trend toward buying goods from catalogs, and the proliferation of large national chain distributors, have encouraged many businesses to ignore local products and services.

Just a slight change in attitude and awareness of Harford businesses could add millions of dollars to the economic activity inside the county, says Fred Rohm, chamber executive director.

That's a justifiable goal. But cutthroat competition has broken the old-time economic network of mutual patronage by local businesses. Price is the dominant factor, no matter where the provider is located. (And many Harford businesses thrive on serving customers outside the county.) Local firms have to show they can provide better service and actively pursue sales in the area, if the campaign is to work.

But what may be a promising marketing idea for local farmers is not necessarily so for other Harford businesses.

Mike Burns is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Harford County.

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