In Stale Economy, Pushing The Fresh
Farmers to Carry Optimism to Markets

By Lori Aratani
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 19, 2009

Representatives from farmers markets across Maryland gathered in Annapolis last week to exchange information and learn about new marketing strategies in anticipation of the spring selling season.

Maryland has more than 70 farmers markets that connect residents with local merchants and growers. Many farmers said they are hopeful that the push to buy local products will give their businesses a boost at a time when many farms are struggling to stay afloat. And, they said, they are optimistic that the growth they've had in previous years will continue.

"We're hoping that people will still buy local, because when you buy local, you buy fresh," said Matt Corley, who oversees operations at the Bowie Farmers Market. The market will celebrate its 10th anniversary when it opens in May.

Those who manage farmers markets said they are taking a cue from the local economy, tailoring promotions to mirror what's happening in people's lives.

Janna Howley, marketing manager for Freshfarm Markets, said the nonprofit organization is retooling cooking demonstrations to focus on the basics. Freshfarm manages eight markets in the region, including ones in Silver Spring and Dupont Circle.

Previously, the markets sponsored chef demonstrations that featured high-end products, she said. "Now we're looking at how you can use farmers market products to make economical meals."

Officials with the state Department of Agriculture said it's too early in the season to predict how the markets will fare. But Amy G. Crone, a state agricultural marketing specialist, said her department has noticed an uptick in inquiries from people who want to start farmers markets or who are interested in some of the department's promotional programs.

Crone said the movement to encourage people to buy local to reduce their impact on the environment, coupled with recent food scares, could be a boost for farmers markets.

"People really want to reconnect with their farmers, so they know where their food is coming from," Crone said. "It's reassuring to be able to ask farmers how they grow their products."

Crone said the number of farmers markets in Maryland has continued to grow. In 2004, 64 markets were registered with the state Department of Agriculture. Maryland has 72 registered farmers markets this year, and more could open once the season begins, she said.

The Washington region isn't the only one experiencing a market boom. Nationwide, more than 3,000 farmers markets have opened since 1994, the first year the U.S. Department of Agriculture began tracking numbers.

And the markets are big business.

Direct food sales -- farmers selling straight to consumers -- totaled $1.2 billion in 2007, up from $812 million in 2002, according to the Crossroads Resource Center. The nonprofit research center examined data from the USDA's Census of Agriculture.

Crone said Maryland farmers markets play a critical role in efforts to improve nutrition among the elderly and low-income families. Many of the state's markets take part in a federal program that provides coupons that can be redeemed for fresh produce and other foods at the markets. The coupons can also be used at roadside stands and community-supported agricultural programs. The goal is to improve nutrition by increasing access to fresh foods.

"It's a great program," said Freshfarms' Howley. "We really encourage our farmers to accept these coupons."

Other promotions focus on the environment. At the Bowie Farmers Market, shoppers who spend $40 receive free bags to tote their purchases.

"With people having less money and not traveling much, maybe they can make a day trip to see the market,'' said the Bowie market's Corley.

"It's something inexpensive they can do," he said, adding that the money shoppers save on gas, they "can spend on food."

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