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Tony Evans, who brought farmers to market, dies at 76 [Commentary]

When the peaches start to come in, you have to get to the Annapolis farmers' market early on Saturday mornings. The lines at the Harris Orchard truck are polite but long, snaking out into the parking lot on Riva Road. And the peaches disappear quickly.

The women making the sales and the change can look stressed by the demand, but Tony Evans never did. He'd ask you when you wanted to eat your peaches, today or later in the week? He'd choose just the right firmness for you and then spend a couple more minutes teaching you how to know when a peach is at the peak of flavor.

Tony Evans was more than an ambassador for Maryland peaches. He began to put together farmers' markets in Maryland in the late 1980s when there were only a handful, and when he died Jan. 20 at the age of 76, there were almost 150.

"Until he retired, he really relished that duty," said Pat McMillan, assistant secretary for marketing at the Maryland Department of Agriculture. "He loved interacting with the farmers and he loved the color and the activity of the markets.

"Even after he retired [in 2003], he stayed involved, working with Harris Orchards."

Mr. Evans, who began his career as a newsman before working for 30 years for the MDA, learned of Peggy Campanella's orchards at the southern tip of Anne Arundel County more than 20 years ago and approached her about bringing her fruit to farmers' markets in the lower part of the state. Most of Maryland's orchards are in the north and west.

"God bless him," said Ms. Campanella. "He wanted to remain in agriculture, and he was excellent with the public. He had such a wonderful personality, and he lived near the Riva Road market, and he would come out and help me on Saturdays."

Early in the season, Mr. Evans would collect the best of the pruned branches at the orchard and bring them to the market for Ms. Campanella and sell them as cut flowers. He was there when the apples and the pears and the berries came in, too, selling and telling the same jokes.

It is hard to imagine that at one time the connection between farm and table that flows through a farmers' market barely existed in Maryland. Mr. Evans worked enthusiastically to bring the farmers and the consumers together all over the state.

"There was momentum," said Mr. McMillan. "Farmers were looking for the opportunities to sell, and communities wanted this amenity. Tony brought them together." When he retired, he told a reporter he guessed that he knew more than 1,500 farmers by sight.

Mr. Evans was hired in 1973 as the first public information officer when the MDA became an official state agency. Information is right. He had a head full of the most arcane facts about Maryland agriculture and was the lively master of ceremonies at the department's public open houses which became so popular.

In addition, he promoted Maryland made products — from muffin mixes to race horses — nationally and internationally. When he retired, he went to Arizona to help the Navajo Reservation set up farmers' markets.

"I have had a lot of fun," he told a reporter. "The farmers have been wonderful teachers."

Mr. Evans is survived by his wife, Penny, two children and five grand-children. A memorial service is planned for the spring. Probably right around the time the first farmers' markets open for the season.

Susan Reimer's column appears on Mondays and Thursdays. She can be reached at susan.reimer@baltsun.com and @SusanReimer on Twitter.com.

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