The Charm of Times Past, Upgraded

Susan Bergel of Purcellville talks about the sunflowers she has for sale at the downtown Purcellville Farmers Market, open Thursdays from 4 to 7 p.m.
Susan Bergel of Purcellville talks about the sunflowers she has for sale at the downtown Purcellville Farmers Market, open Thursdays from 4 to 7 p.m. (Photos By Tracy A. Woodward -- The Washington Post)
By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 20, 2006

Beneath quaintly retro lampposts and the familiar white canopies of upscale street festivals, the vendors of the Purcellville Farmers Market are plying an old-fashioned trade with 21st-century flair.

Live bluegrass music wafts through the air. Local chefs perform cooking demonstrations. Among classic market fare of summer squash, berries and jams sit homemade herbal lotions, oven-ready casseroles of chicken tetrazzini and every cut imaginable of antibiotic-free beef.

And if that isn't enough, this market is wired: Vendors can process electronic payments, and they can plug in their freezers to electrical lines installed this year. The latter change opens the market to purveyors of perishable goods; the former opens it to customers' credit card and bank accounts.

"I can practically do my grocery shopping here," said Meryl Siekierski, 52, a Purcellville resident who swings by the market regularly. "Most of the stuff is local. People are really nice here, and they know what they're doing."

Farmers markets are booming across the region, said Warren Howell, an agricultural marketing manager for Loudoun County. Modern families like to buy produce they know is grown locally, he said. And they like the warm, community feel of markets, which tend to be outdoors, with farmers' trucks parked behind their displays and with friends and neighbors likely to walk by.

The Purcellville market, one of five in Loudoun run by an association of growers, has attracted an unusual level of buzz this year, Howell said. One reason is the market's metamorphosis, spurred by the town's investments in new lights, wiring and a new surface for the parking lot where the market operates each Thursday from 4 to 7 p.m., he said.

The location helps, too. The Purcellville market sits smack in the middle of downtown, a stone's throw from the old train depot and the terminus of the Washington & Old Dominion trail.

"People are talking about that market very much," Howell said. "It really has a welcoming, warm feeling. The vendors know the dog's name or the kid's name -- that's something that's not going to happen at Safeway."

The market is not the busiest in Loudoun; Leesburg's on Saturday mornings is, Howell said. But it does a brisk business, which is increasing now that credit card transactions are available, he said. A county study shows that the average shopper at the Purcellville market spends nearly $20 a visit -- adding up to $170,000 in gross sales a year. The shoppers spend additional money at surrounding businesses, giving them a boost as well.

That's not just good for Purcellville; it's good for farmers. In an era of large-scale agribusiness, the small farmers of Loudoun and the surrounding area are, in some cases, able to stay in business because they can sell their wares to consumers at retail prices.

"The farmers market allows the small farmer to market his products direct," said Steve Baker of Baker Farm in the Shenandoah Valley. Baker sells pork -- ribs, tenderloin, roasts, butts -- from his stall at the market. All of it is raised on the family farm.

And it's so tasty, other vendors say, that a little bartering system has developed among farmers, who trade goods with one another because they like each other's offerings so much.

"There's a lot of different stuff," said Lisa Moutoux, 26, of Moutoux Orchards in Wheatland, "and it's all really good."

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