Upscale Farmers Market Reaps Disappointment

By Jenna Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 13, 2008

There are no pickups at National Harbor's American Market. No dirt-caked potatoes or grotesquely misshapen heirloom tomatoes. Everything is clean, colorful and tastefully displayed under matching white tents.

Yes, National Harbor has managed to make even a farmers market an upscale experience. No fewer than 21 rules, along with a host of contractual requirements, ensure that the seasonal Saturday market is just so.

But in its first year, the market has had difficulty attracting Maryland farmers. Some say they were put off by the elaborate system of rules, the lengthy application process, the requirement that they open their farms to inspection and the weekly fee for participation.

"We just want to sell produce," said Whitney Dawkins, who operates a booth with goods from her boyfriend's farm in St. Mary's County. "We don't want to sign our lives away."

Dawkins said other farmers she has tried to persuade to join her at the market in Prince George's County have been discouraged by the paperwork and other requirements.

American Market is made up of about three dozen booths on a grassy patch sandwiched between two large parking garages and the towering Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center. Each vendor is given a tent but is responsible for creating professional, colorful displays.

The market, which opened in May and ends this coming weekend, showcases produce from three farms, fewer than organizers had hoped, and also features artwork, crafts, homemade soaps, pastries and gourmet pickles.

The rules and policies governing the market are necessary to maintain high quality, said Rocell Viniard, National Harbor's vice president in charge of marketing. Vendors are required to open by 9 a.m., and the inspections ensure that the produce is grown as it is being advertised.

Dawkins, 22, signed up for the American Market this spring as an alternative to markets that have loud, aggressive farmers hawking their produce. She said the "hoity-toity" atmosphere of the $4 billion National Harbor development seemed like a better fit.

She and others said they were expecting National Harbor's first residents to arrive in July. But that did not happen, delaying the arrival of what was expected to be a regular customer base.

Tourists staying at the Gaylord wander over to the market from time to time, but they are more likely to buy crafts, artwork or jams than fresh produce.

"They might buy one or two pieces of fruit, but if they are flying back the next day, they can't really buy five or 10 pounds of a product," said Dan Donahue of El Vista Orchards, which gathers produce from seven Pennsylvania farms.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company