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Maryland farmers' markets thrive on freshness


AH, SWEET CORN on the cob -- a summertime treat for most Marylanders -- is best fresh from the field.

It is the freshness that ensures that the kernels have their ephemeral sweet taste and juiciness.

And that is what adds to the popularity of farmers' markets and roadside farm stands among consumers across the state.

"This is gonna be a real treat," Donna Edwards said as she packed a dozen ears of Argent white corn into a sack as she shopped the farmers' market behind The Avenue at White Marsh Mall on Friday morning. "It's so good when it comes right out of the field."

She made the purchase from Hills Forest Fruit Farm, which had a cornucopia of fruit and vegetables spread under a white canvas tent.

A few feet away, at another booth, Donald Miller was sampling a cube of watermelon before buying. "Big and Sweet Sangria, just taste. $4.50 each," read the paper sign next to the pile of melons.

Miller was taken by the taste. He handed his money across the table.

Farmers' markets -- featuring farm-fresh produce along with a variety of other items, including birdhouses, honey, beef and cut flowers -- are holding their own in Maryland.

There are 73 farmers' markets in the state, according to Joan Schulz, who tracks this segment of farming business for the state Department of Agriculture. That is about the same as three years ago.

There is at least one in every county. Baltimore City has five.

The market beneath the Jones Falls Expressway, between Holliday and Gay streets, is the largest. It normally features 32 farmers, said Carole Simon, marketing manager. "They come from all over," she said, "Howard, Harford, Cecil, Caroline, Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties."

Farmers' markets began showing up at shopping center parking lots and on streets in greater numbers in the early 1990s, after the concept of direct marketing was promoted strongly by then-state Agriculture Secretary Wayne A. Cawley Jr.

Cawley preached that the best way to make up for low grain, milk and livestock prices was for farmers to sell directly to the consumer. "Don't sell wholesale when you can get the retail price," he told farmers repeatedly.

Today, direct marketing of farm products is a big business in Maryland, according to Roland Behnke, who recently ended eight years of service on the Maryland Agricultural Commission, where he was in charge of direct farm marketing.

"Maryland ranks 10th in the nation in direct marketing of farm product," he said.

According to Behnke, direct farm sales, including farmers' markets and roadside stands, is a $100 million-a-year business in the state. "This includes grape growers like Fiore [Winery in Pylesville] that sells its wine directly to the consumer."

Behnke said the state could help farmers by spending more money on advertising farmers' markets and the benefits of buying directly from farmers.

"One of the most important things about buying from a farmers' market," said Schulz, "is the high nutrition value of fruits and vegetables. The consumer is usually getting items that were picked that morning or the night before."

She said that about 250 growers participate in farmers' markets around the state. The vast majority are from Maryland, but a few come from Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia.

Schulz said the number of farmers willing to participate limits the number of markets.

"It is not something that all farmers like to do," she said. "Some of them don't enjoy dealing with the public. They would rather be out in the field."

Participating farmers usually set up booths at two or three markets each week, according to Schulz.

"A good farmers' market sales booth can net about $30,000 a year," said Behnke. "That's pretty good."

He said that $30,000 was on the high side and that a typical operation would make about $20,000 a year.

"The money is good," said Richard Dilworth of Hills Forest Fruit Farm, "but when the crops start flowing in, there's no life other than this. It's hard work. You pick, pack and sell. You do everything. There's little time for anything else."

"But, he added, "we get to keep more of the money. We're not paying the middleman."

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