After just two months of operation, the Harper's Choice farmers' market is pumping new life into an aging village center hurt in recent years by the loss of merchants and customer concerns about security.
Open Tuesdays since June, the market is behind the McDonald's in the Harper's Choice Village Center. Operated by Columbia Management Inc., the farmers' market has steadily increased its traffic flow each week, market officials said.
That's good news for the 25-year-old village center.
"We're thrilled," said Wendy Tzuker, Harper's Choice village manager, who visits the market weekly to buy fruit, vegetables, baked goods and flowers. "We think it'll be really good for our residents, especially with the supermarket being closed."
She added: "I think that the more people who come here, the more they'll remember we're here. Once we get the renovations going, it should be great."
Village officials are working hard to revitalize the village center, which in December lost Valu Food, its anchor, and has in the past suffered the loss of a Subway Sandwiches store, a High's Dairy store and a Little Caesars Pizza shop.
A big boost will come when a 55,000-square-foot Safeway opens late next year.
And Linda Carty, the farmers' market master, said she has high hopes for the market, which is open from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m.
"Once people realize we're here, I think the attendance will increase," said Carty, who operates the Silver-Run based Thistle Dew Fine Farm stand.
Planners hope the market can emulate the success of the Oakland Mills farmers' market, held Thursdays in east Columbia.
The 5-year-old Oakland Mills market is the Maryland Department of Agriculture's "premiere" farmers' market, according to Philip Gottwals, agricultural marketing specialist for the Howard County Economic Development Authority.
"It's just absolutely going gangbusters," said Gottwals, estimating that up to 1,000 people visit the Oakland Mills market each week, well above the national average of 200 visitors a day to a farmers' market.
Spurred by the success of that market, the county opened the Harper's Choice market this summer and may open additional markets in the Ellicott City area, North Laurel or western Howard County, Gottwals said.
The Harper's Choice site is perfect for a farmers' market because of the amount of space and the high-density residential area nearby, Gottwals said. "It brings people into the village center, so it's good for the merchants."
The vegetables, fruit, flowers and other products sold at the Harper's Choice farmers' market usually are hand-picked from farms every morning -- and farmers post signs to remind shoppers.
To participate, farmers, who need not be from Howard County, must apply to Columbia Management, be certified as a producer and sell foods they grow, Gottwals said. They pay $300 a year.
Last week, shoppers lifted, squeezed, smelled and examined the fresh baked breads, cantaloupes, watermelons, tomatoes, peppers and other items.
"I prefer the farmers' market," said shopper Carol Bodin of Harper's Choice, who came with her daughter, Debbie. "This stuff is very fresh, and you can tell they really care."
She pointed to a "picked this morning" sign at the Glenelg-based Triadelphia Lake View Farm stand to prove her point.
Bodin said she has frequented the Oakland Mills market since it opened and now shops at the Harper's Choice market because it is closer to home.
The women bought green and yellow beans and yellow potatoes. "I served my husband edible flowers last week, and he didn't even notice them," Bodin noted, laughing.
That kind of enthusiasm makes farmers optimistic about the market's business.
"So far, it's been good, and it's getting better every week," said Joan Aylesworth, who runs the Triadelphia stand with her husband, William, for their daughter. As customers paid for their purchases, the couple filled plastic bags with produce.
Some farmers also said shoppers seem smart when it comes to eating right.
"It seems that the community here supports good food," said Art James of Blueberry Hill Vegetables Ltd. of Clear Spring, Md., who sells edible flowers, fruits and vegetables. "Eating should be fun."
Farmer Delores Magnani of Flower of the Forest Farm in St. Mary's County neatly arranged fruit and vegetables, including purple peppers, at her family's stand.
"What's a purple pepper?" someone asked.
"It's milder and sweeter," Magnani responded.
Nearby, Micki Carr of Jessup was enjoying her first trip to the market. "I always shop at farmers' markets when I can," she said. "For two reasons: One, to help the small farmers, and two, the food tastes good."
Pub Date: 8/14/96