A crop of loyal customers


The farmers know they're coming.

Before the sun is high in the sky, they arrive, swarming over everything in their path - lettuce, strawberries, pies, pot holders.

"They know the early bird gets the cream of the crop," said Anita Bullock, co-manager of the Carroll County Farmers' Market in Westminster, held Saturdays throughout the summer at the Agricultural Center.

It's not the casual shopper who arrives as early as 7 a.m. It's the hard-core, die-hard farm market fans who meet and greet the many vendors well before the standard opening at 8 a.m.

Take Anne and Ron Kyker of Westminster: "[Ron] was still drinking his coffee when I said, "Let's go!'" Anne Kyker said, referring to a recent morning trip to the Agricultural Center.

Or Faye Hackey, who drives about 20 miles from her Gaithersburg home to the Carroll County Farmers' Market two or three times every summer to stock her freezer with fresh vegetables.

Going to farmers' markets "is a tradition in Carroll County," said Jean Christensen of Westminster, a frequent customer at local markets. People meet their neighbors and talk to vendors they've patronized for years, creating an atmosphere not unlike that of a town square.

Carroll County has five farmers' markets - in Mount Airy, Westminster, Sykesville and South Carroll. The number of farmers' markets in Maryland has tripled to 67 since 1990, said Tony Evans, co- ordinator of farmers' market programs for the Maryland Department of Agriculture.

Carroll's markets range in size from five to 45 vendors. Some markets might boast fewer than usual this year, because last summer's drought shook farmers' confidence in their crop yields.

Some customers are lured from supermarkets by hopes of fresh-picked produce. During corn season, "we pick it that morning at 5:30 a.m.," said Wendy Plank, co-manager of the Carroll County Farmers' Market and a vendor. "You're talking about corn that's two hours old."

Customers also like to support area farmers. Grocery stores "say they buy local, but local to them is within 500 miles of here," Plank said.

At some markets, you can walk away with a loaf of bread, a bouquet of flowers or a blanket, as well as locally grown fruits and vegetables.

It pays to arrive early, especially if you want to buy a local treat, such as the Jewish apple cake made by Jane Sussman of Westminster. She has sold baked goods at the Carroll County Farmers' Market for almost as long as the market has existed. In its 29th year, the market is the second-oldest in the state.

She occasionally sells out by 9 a.m., but will hold cakes for customers who ask her to do so. She regularly holds cakes for some customers who travel from as far as Virginia.

You'll find more than vegetable staples. Green zebra tomatoes and tomatilloscan be found at some Carroll County markets.

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