In poll, farmers' markets rule among Maryland consumers

The Baltimore Sun

If given a choice, the vast majority of Maryland consumers -- 76 percent -- say they are more likely to buy produce that is identified as having been grown by a state farmer.

That's one of the findings in a survey earlier this year by the University of Baltimore's Schaefer Center for Public Policy, and farmers are eager to accommodate the consumers' wishes.

There will be 83 farmers' markets opening this year, according to the state Department of Agriculture. This is six more than last year.

Every county and Baltimore City will have at least one market.

The bulk of the markets will be located in areas of high population. Baltimore City will be home to a half-dozen markets, and there will be seven markets in both Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties. Frederick County will have nine.

The Washington suburbs have proven to be a popular area for farmers to sell their goods directly to consumers. Montgomery County will have 11 markets this year, and Prince George's will have eight.

Most of the markets will open by this weekend, and many are already selling early season produce like kale, salad greens, spinach and asparagus, as well as hanging flower baskets and bedding plants.

"At farmers' markets across the state, customers can purchase a wide variety of locally grown and processed products, including fruits, vegetables, herbs, flowers, plants, eggs, meat and cheeses," said Agriculture Secretary Roger L. Richardson.

"Not only will consumers enjoy some of the freshest and best-tasting products around, they will directly support our family farmers," Richardson added.

There are added benefits to the farmers and the state.

"Every dollar spent on local agricultural products contributes to the economic health of the farm community, keeps our land in farming, and helps support a sustainable future for Maryland agriculture," Richardson said.

Agriculture officials say there is a growing trend toward people wanting to know more about their food and where it comes from. At farmers' markets, shoppers frequently have the opportunity to talk directly with the farmers to ask about how their products were grown and how to prepare them.

Freshness, not savings, is the biggest benefit to consumers shopping at farmers' markets. While prices are usually comparable to what you might see at the grocery store, a lot of the produce displayed at farmers' markets was picked the day before it is sold. Some items are sold within hours of harvest.

The local offerings change as the season progresses, with the weather influencing when certain fruits and vegetables are ready for market.

In a typical year, locally grown strawberries -- sweet, soft and juicy -- are ready for picking by the middle of May.

They are followed by another local, fresh-from-the-farm favorite, sweet corn. Some early varieties of corn go on sale in mid-June, and the season seems to peak by the 4th of July.

Cantaloupes and peaches usually begin showing up at markets in mid-July, and watermelons arrive in abundance in August.

They are all goodies that nearly half of the adults would pay a premium price for, according to the Schaefer Center survey.

The survey found that 42 percent of consumers would be willing to dig deeper in their pockets and pay 1 percent to 20 percent more for local produce. Six percent said they would be willing to pay 20 percent more for state-grown farm products.

The survey also found that 82 percent of the state's residents had shopped at farmers' markets during 2007.

Of the 83 markets opening this year, 69 will participate in the Farmers' Market Nutrition Program. The program provides qualified senior citizens along with participants in the government's Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program with checks they can use to purchase fruits, vegetables and cut herbs.

The program is sponsored by a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and provided $563,000 worth of produce to seniors and WIC participants last year.

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