Dining seasonally and locally has become a goal in many domestic and commercial kitchens. A kitchen garden is the paragon, but not everyone is fortunate enough to have the space — or the time — to grow their own. However, even tenants of top floor high-rises or concrete-surrounded urban developments still can enjoy fresh, local produce. Maryland has an extensive network of regional farmers markets offering regionally-grown fruits and vegetables, specialty food items and even some handicrafts and wine.
From Oakland to Ocean City, 137 open-air markets — nearly four dozen in Howard and more than 60 in Anne Arundel County — bring the farms to the public. With markets in every county, Maryland’s Department of Agriculture supports the loose confederation of producers and vendors.
“We don’t actually run the markets,” said Amy Crone, an MDA agricultural marketing specialist. “We offer technical assistance services, assistance with the Farmers Market Nutrition Program. The U.S. Department of Agriculture gives money to low-income WIC [the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children] and seniors 60 years and older,” with an income level of $1,100 or less each month.
MDA also offers assistance with other government programs, licensing and permits. They are the people to see if you want to start a farmers market. Its web site, http://mda.maryland.gov/maryland_products/Pages/farmers_market_dir.aspx, carries four pages of advice, suggestions and cautions.
“It’s spelled out in the Code of Maryland Regulations,” added Crone. “A place where three or more farmers or vendors gather.”
MDA’s Marketing and Agribusiness Development section runs the Maryland’s Best program that links Maryland farmers with consumers. However, more than simply ad hoc fruit and vegetable stands, Maryland’s farmers markets draw their communities, serving as gathering places, local forums and social centers. Each market has its own roster of steady farmers, its own foods, fancies and personality.
Each market also sets its own standards. What constitutes “local” produce? How many vendors? Will crafts and other non-food items be permitted?
“It’s up to the market management to limit vendors to a certain radius,” said Crone. “The best practice is to have producers only.”
Crone also noted that the number of markets has grown by 12% annually. “It’s a variety of factors. People want their food picked at the peak of freshness. They don’t want tomatoes sprayed with gasses. People want to know their farmers.”
Howard County’s markets are governed by the county’s Economic Development office and six pages of guidelines that stipulate everything from what items can be sold to how complaints will be handled.
The market system defines its mission as: “To provide a place for producers of locally grown, raised, and prepared foods and plants to [sic] offer their goods for sale directly to consumers; interaction fostering the sharing of information about food, healthy living, and the interdependence of the built and natural environments; and where the Farmers Market, as a venue for and contributor to local sustainable practices, is seen operated as a clean and healthy, beautiful and hospitable physical space that speaks to its intended purpose: a direct link between area farmers and our local consumers.”
The county offers five markets.
• Miller Branch Library on Wednesdays, opens May 8
• East Columbia Branch Library on Thursdays, opens May 9
• Howard County General Hospital on Fridays, opens May 10
• Glenwood Branch Library on Saturdays, opens May 11
• Oakland Mills Village Center on Sundays, opens May 12
Anne Arundel County’s EDC also works with six markets, with another six to 10 private markets serving the public.
“People want to know where their food comes from,” said Lisa Barge, agricultural marketing and development manager for Anne Arundel County Economic Development Commission. “The markets put a face on the growers. People get to ask them questions.”
“All different kinds of people shop at the markets, she continued. “Riva Road is the oldest and the largest. Organics are getting big. The demand is expanding as they become more and more popular.”
Barge mentioned that increasing food awareness has spurred the growth of the market system. “People want local produce that hasn’t traveled from great distances,” she said.
As with the Howard County markets, Anne Arundel’s six county markets are producer-only. According to the guidelines, “The use of the market is restricted to actual producers or growers of fruits, vegetables, plants, herbs, flowers, baked goods, jellies, jams, honey, and/or other approved products that are offered for sale.”
Farmers and vendors must produce or grow what they sell. However, markets also host specialty vendors such as a coffee roaster. “They don’t actually grow the coffee,” said Barge, “But they do roast it and offer it for sale.”
Along with locally grown produce, many of the markets offer agricultural products such as meats, dairy products, and baked goods. “We’ve got a new vendor selling ice pops,” continued Barge, “and a seafood company. But, we do limit the number of specialty vendors and place more emphasis on farm producers.”
As locovore creeps into more people’s kitchens and culinary lexicons, the region’s farmers market system faces a robust future.
“I want to see increased access for all income levels,” said MDA’s Crone. “The federal nutrition programs and SNAP [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program] — we need to get those accepted. I also like the focus on produce and food. Some crafts is okay; people want that distinction. And it is good practice to support your local artisans.”
For more information and market locations and schedules, contact the Maryland Department of Agriculture at 410-841-5700, or visit www.mda.state.md.us. Find out about Howard County’s markets at www.howardcountyfarmersmarkets.com. For Anne Arundel County, visit http://aacofarmersmarket.com.