Correction to This Article
This article incorrectly suggested that pasta from Smith Meadows Farm may not be produced with local ingredients. Nancy Polo, manager of Smith Meadows Kitchen, said the pasta is prepared with the Berryville, Va., farm's own eggs and with flour from Pennsylvania.

In winter, farmers markets turn into value (added) villages

Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 12, 2011; 12:00 AM

The minute Fred Jackson steps away from our interview to serve a customer at his barbecue stand at the Smart Market in Gainesville, another vendor approaches me, her face tight and unhappy. She wants a moment of my time on this Sunday in January. When I finally make my way to her, she's almost popping at the seams with frustration.

She thinks I'm spending way too much time with Jackson, who sells some tasty smoked meats under the banner of Uncle Fred's BBQ Smoke Shack. And with Abbie and Ron Pence, a pair of semi-retirees who deal bags of kettle corn from their country kitchen on wheels. And with Tommy Venable, a former graphic designer with a stylish goatee who has found a second career hawking homemade salsas under the brand TommyV's.

As she talks, the vendor and I are standing in the middle of a circle of temporary tents pitched on this damp, wickedly cold patch of concrete in the Virginia Gateway shopping center parking lot. She admits that today is the first day she realized how few farmers are at the market: The kitchen dwellers - the barbecue man, the corn poppers and salsa pusher among them - have the land dwellers outnumbered by more than 2 to 1. She finds it appalling that a farmers market such as this can have so few of them. "You're looking at a food court here," says the vendor, a farmer, who requests anonymity lest she lose her spot at the market.

Whether she knows it or not, this vendor has hit upon one of the hot-button issues of winter farmers markets: How far are they willing to stretch beyond the farm to include "value-added" products? That question, of course, immediately raises two more: What exactly are "value-added" products, and who's reaping the benefits of all this added value?

The first question is slightly easier to answer.

As commonly defined, they are products created from raw agricultural ingredients that then have a higher market value. That definition is broad enough to cover both goat cheese and garlic pickles and even goods that have nothing to do with eating, such as soap and wool and tanned sheepskins. Then again, one market manager told me that, to her mind, a value-added product is simply one prepared in a kitchen, which would exclude soap and the like but would include Jackson's wood-perfumed 'cue, the Pences' salty-sweet kettle corn and Venable's line of gourmet salsas.

Definition aside, who benefits from added value? Some managers and vendors will tell you that everyone does. The farmers make more money by turning surplus summer inventory into entirely new items for the winter. In turn, the winter markets, those once-barren outposts yielding a skeleton selection of greens and cold-storage apples, now bulge with pastas, sauces, jams, jellies, breads, pies, soups, stews and other prepared foods. The public then has more reasons to venture into the icy streets for sustenance.

"Some people get real tired of seeing the kale and the winter squash and big greens and sweet potatoes," notes Bernadine Prince, co-director of the nonprofit FreshFarm Markets, which operates two year-round markets, one at Dupont Circle and another in Silver Spring. "If you only have one or two things down there [at winter markets], people are not going to come. You need to have that density of product."

The issue is, as the squawky vendor noted on that drizzly cold Sunday in Gainesville, when does a director begin to alter the very concept of a farmers market by including vendors with no connection to local animals or the region's soil? When does a "producers-only" market, a trendy term managers toss around to guarantee that no wholesale produce creeps onto stands, begin to expand its definition to include non-farmers? Some market directors, sensitive to that conundrum, have developed rules to make sure value-added vendors don't wander too far afield.

"We try to encourage anybody who's doing a value-added product, whether it be a farmer or someone like Chris Hoge [from Chris' Marketplace] who's making crab cakes and empanadas, that they be sourcing from local farmers and that they actually let us know who those farmers are," says FreshFarm's Prince.

Prince realizes that some products, such as the breads from Atwater's Bakery or the pasta from Smith Meadows Farm, probably will never meet that standard, so there is flexibility built into the guidelines. All value-added goods, she notes, must be made from scratch and prepared with "locally sourced ingredients when reasonable and possible within season."

Other directors waive the local-ingredient requirement in favor of other goals. "We are not nearly so strict as, say, FreshFarm," says Jean Janssen, founder and director of Smart Markets Inc., which runs two year-round markets. "We do not require them to use only locally grown ingredients or products, because then they would be out of business in the winter, too. . . . And part of our mission is to be an incubator for small food producers."

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