It didn't look or feel like spring outside, but a sure sign of the season was forming in Columbia's Dobbin Center parking lot, across from Upton's.
As a chilly rain fell yesterday, farmers and gardeners dressed in slickers were displaying their produce and baked goods on the first day of Columbia's expanded farmers' market. Huddled under tents, five vendors braved the weather to truck in fresh asparagus, ripe tomatoes, potted plants and just-baked fruit pies.
"It's the first day, and we wanted to see where our spot was," said Mike Shaw of Simpsonville's Shaw Farms, flanked by a table of flavored vinegars, green peppers and bagged salads mixed with organically grown flowers.
The market is a merger of last year's Dobbin and Oakland Mills farmers' markets. The Oakland Mills market closed because of construction of a grocery store in the Oakland Mills Village Center.
When the weather improves, the market should have 12 vendors Tuesdays and 17 Thursdays, the busier of the two market days, which run from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. Goods will range from seasonal produce to honey, breads, baked desserts and garden seedlings.
The county also is planning to open a second farmers' market in Ellicott City by July 5.
Last year, there was some doubt about whether the Dobbin Center farmers' market would return this year. Vendors complained of low sales after midsummer, especially compared with the older Oakland Mills market. However, participants such as Jim Unger of Unger's Farm in Hampstead were optimistic about the merger.
"Last year was a first-year market for Dobbin. I think it will pick up," Unger said. "I think we'll have just as many or more [customers] coming back."
Said Shaw: "Hopefully, this location will do as well as Oakland Mills did last year. We're looking forward to the Ellicott City location that they're opening up."
Though the skies were gloomy yesterday, the wares were bright and homey. Unger set out boxes of Rome apples, old-fashioned fudge and baked fruit turnovers while his brother-in-law John Rill arranged jars of apple butter and colorful irises anchored in 2-liter Coke bottles.
"We hope to have strawberries in two weeks," Unger said. "We'll just have to wait for the weather to warm up."
At the Cider Mill Farm bakery stand, owner Tom Owens stood under an umbrella while the general manager, Cheryl Nodar, tended a table bearing banana nut bread, cookies and apple pies. For a moment, the wind threatened to take off with the tent before a few bystanders grabbed it.
"You have to be here each time," Owens said, shrugging off the rain. "You need a lot of people and a lot of farmers here at the same time."
The Shaw Farms table featured an unusual product: hydroponic produce, grown without soil in a greenhouse. The vegetables are grown in a controlled environment where their exposed roots are regularly bathed in water and nutrients. Also available were nasturtium blooms, organically grown and edible.
"They really brighten up salads," Shaw said.
Statewide, the health of farmers' markets is good, said Lester Jones, marketing administrator for the Maryland Department of Agriculture. Besides the Columbia market -- the only one in Howard County now -- there are five farmers' markets in Baltimore, five in Baltimore County, four in Carroll County and three in Anne Arundel County, he said.
While occasionally a market will falter, it is usually because of a change in the property, such as impending construction, rather than a lack of interest from customers, Jones said.
"Generally, Maryland's farmers' markets are healthy and vibrant," Jones said.
At the Columbia market, vendors come from as far as Pennsylvania, Virginia and Maryland's Eastern Shore. Several others are on a waiting list.
"It's a great place to have a farmers' market," said Phil Gottwals, an agricultural marketing specialist for the Howard County Economic Development Authority. "You've got 85,000 people in Columbia."
Gottwals said the Dobbin market eventually will include plant clinics with experts from the University of Maryland, nutrition workshops on cooking with fresh produce and, possibly, a chef's competition.
Pub Date: 5/13/98