A Fresh Look Back

Washington celebrates 15 years of farmers markets — and it’s amazing how much the field has grown

July 4, 2012

A 1997 Washington Post photo shows the Dupont Circle FRESHFARM Market in its inaugural week. There are now 11 FRESHFARM Markets in the region and many other community markets throughout the city.

Fifteen years ago, few Washingtonians could easily pop out to their local farmers market to buy a pint of just-picked blackberries or a just-harvested ear of corn from Toigo Orchards. Only a handful of such markets existed around D.C. So, while most of us made do at the grocery store, fresh-picked produce from the Shippensburg, Pa., orchard ended up in the more cosmopolitan kitchens of New York City — the nearest city for the orchard to sell direct to consumers.

In 1997, when Mark Toigo, whose family has owned Toigo Orchards since the 1970s, got an opportunity to join a new market in Dupont Circle (now Dupont Circle FRESHFARM Market), he jumped at the chance. Toigo Orchards signed on with 14 other farmers from within a 200-mile radius to sell at the market.

A Washington Post story about the first day reveals how sorely the city had been in need of a place to buy varied, fresh produce. “I try to get to Eastern Market, but it’s too far away,” one opening-day customer said. “Our only alternative is Safeway.”

These days, Washingtonians are spoiled when it comes to farmers markets. Friday marks the 15th birthday of those first Dupont Circle stands, where the number of vendors has grown to 42. In its first year, the market drew 21,000 people; last year, it drew nearly 200,000. And with about 120 farmers and producers now selling at 11 FRESHFARM Markets in the metro region (the newest, held Thursday afternoons in the Ballston district of Arlington, opened last week), the organization even finds itself having to turn down applicants.

“One of the things we’ve seen in the past 15 years is that the farmers market movement has become more complex,” says Ann Yonkers, FRESHFARM Markets’ co-founder and co-executive director. “People used to say there weren’t enough farmers. We don’t typically have trouble finding enough farmers anymore.”

FRESHFARM does, however, want sellers who fit its strict “producer-only” policy: To be approved for a FRESHFARM stand, a vendor must grow foods within a 200-mile radius of D.C., within the Chesapeake Bay watershed. (FRESHFARM reps personally visit each site to confirm.) Vendors selling prepared foods must prove they use ingredients sourced from local farms.

“It’s a measure of authenticity,” Yonkers says. “You are also thereby guaranteeing better flavor by lessening the transport time from the field to the market.”

Other markets in D.C. and around the country are similarly moving toward limiting their wares to only locally grown and made products — even if those items (such as the pulled pork sandwiches and burgers found at FRESHFARM Markets’ “by the White House” location) don’t quite fit the traditional definition of a farmers market as a place to sell and buy raw foods. Not all markets are so restrictive: Eastern Market, for instance, doesn’t regulate the origins or seasonality of produce sold at its outdoor stalls. You’re just as likely to find a navel orange imported from Florida as a zucchini grown in a vendor’s backyard.

Farmer Mark Toigo looks at it more simply. To him, the purpose of a farmers market is “doing what the most basic, simple economics permit: bringing a buyer and a seller together” — something that wasn’t always so easy around here. “The people who come and shop from us know that this [produce] is in season,” Toigo says. “People who respect food and what they put in their bodies very much appreciate this relationship, whether they’re in Timbuktu or in Timonium.”

Dupont Circle FRESHFARM Market, 20th Street between Massachusetts Avenue and Connecticut Avenue NW; Sundays, 8:30 a.m.-1 p.m., free; 202-362-2889. (Dupont Circle)

Happy Birthday!

To celebrate 15 years at FRESHFARM Markets’ first location, in Dupont Circle, the market is holding a birthday bash with a block-party feel. The festivities include live music curated by Sweetgreen, including the Thornley Brothers (of U.S. Royalty and Modern Man), face-painting and birthday cake. Food and drinks from FRESHFARM producers and supporters, including Capital Kettle Corn, Honest Tea, Jaleo and Pleasant Pops, will be available for purchase. PNC Bank parking lot at Massachusetts Avenue and P Street NW; July 15, 4-7 p.m., free; 202-362-2889, Freshfarmmarkets.org. (Dupont Circle)

Crops for All Types

Just like its diverse neighborhoods, the area’s farmers markets have their own distinct personalities.

FRESHFARM Market by the White House
Just 3 years old, this market received a high-profile welcome by first lady Michelle Obama when it was inaugurated in 2009. Back then, the market opened on Thursday afternoons, giving federal workers departing from surrounding buildings a chance to shop for dinner. After visitor numbers dropped off in the evenings, organizers adjusted the hours to cater to the lunchtime crowd and invited prepared-food vendors. Standouts include sandwiches by charcuterie shop Three Little Pigs and handmade gourmet hot dogs by Red Apron Butchery. 810 Vermont Ave. NW (between H and I streets NW); Thursdays, 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. through Oct. 25, free; 202-362-2889, Freshfarmmarkets.org. (McPherson Square)

Takoma Park Farmers Market
The market in this famously crunchy-granola ’hood just over the Maryland line has an alternative vibe to match. Plant and bloom vendors satisfy your inner flower child, and probiotic smoothies keep your body balanced. The market’s been around since 1983 but is still adding new vendors: Mom-and-pop booth Andy’s Mushrooms of Earleville, Md., displays a psychedelic tie-dyed flag featuring ’shrooms (nothing “magic” here, but you’ll find buttons, portabellas and baby bellas). Laurel Avenue, Takoma Park, Md.; Sundays, 10 a.m.-2 p.m. year-round; Takomaparkmarket.com. (Takoma)

Grey Market
The D.C. Grey Market is so cool that it doesn’t even have a regular venue or schedule. Founder Maya Robinson sees the Grey Market less as a farmers market than an incubator that allows local entrepreneurs to test the small-business waters without committing big bucks. Much of what’s sold is prepared foods — such as Haitian meat patties and handcrafted ice cream sandwiches — but it’s all produced in the region, which puts it in the company of other local food-centric setups. However, it’s all a bit freewheeling: Vendors are typically not licensed, unlike those at more established food-sellers. Times and locations vary; see Greydc.com for updates.

Mount Pleasant Farmers’ Market
Compared with its neighbors, the Mount Pleasant Farmers’ Market comes across as just the right size: It’s not as large as Columbia Heights’ and not as underwhelming as Adams Morgan’s. There’s always a soundtrack of live tunes, often acoustic folk and bluegrass, and a bike clinic caters to locals with deflated tires or burning questions. The producer-only booths arranged around Lamont Park have just about everything, and there are even a few prepared-food vendors, too, including one that seems just right for this setting: Pleasant Pops. Lamont Park; Saturdays through Nov. 17, 9 a.m.-1 p.m., free; Mtpfm.org. (Columbia Heights)

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Marc Silver · July 4, 2012