By Tim Carman
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."
What these varying rules have created, then, is a kind of hierarchy of value-added vendors. At the top of the social order is someone like Mark Toigo, the owner of Toigo Orchards in Shippensburg, Pa. His family farm has been transforming raw ingredients into ciders and jams and butters since the early 1970s. Toigo still remembers when he'd walk into the house as a child and see his mom surrounded by "hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of pints of strawberry jam."
"I thought that was kind of normal growing up," he says, laughing at his own memory.
These days, Toigo is a value-added behemoth, with at least a dozen products for sale, from bourbon peaches to bloody mary mixes to basic pasta sauces, some of which are sold both at farmers markets and at retailers such as Whole Foods Market. "We're not burning down doors with our product at the farmers market," Toigo says. "It just helps; every little thing we do helps enough to keep us out there."
Because of his high sales volume, Toigo doesn't prepare his foods on the farm. It'd be too costly and too labor-intensive. Instead, he ships his raw ingredients to a small regional processor who handles everything. Jim Huyett, on the other hand, has built a commercial kitchen on his 245-acre Sunnyside Farm and Orchard in Charles Town, W.Va., to get his own slice of the value-added market.
"Think about it," Huyett tells me on one bone-cold Sunday at the Dupont market. "Before we started [the value-added items], you had to make enough money during the summer to support yourself year-round. That's difficult."
Huyett no longer has to rely on his limited palette of muted-colored vegetables to get him through the winter. His kitchen now turns out an array of soups, stews, dips, sauces, cookies and even mac 'n' cheese to sell at farmers markets. He figures half of his winter income is generated by his value-added products, all of which include local ingredients. "Either I'm growing it myself," he says about his ingredients, "or I'm purchasing it from another local grower."
Even operations as small as Terrapin Station Herb Farm can thrive in the value-added market. The seven-plus-acre farm in York Springs, Pa., cranks out dozens of products, from catnip and zucchini cupcakes to jams and cranberry ketchup. "If it doesn't sell at market the first time around, it gets frozen or turned into a jam or jelly or some other value-added product. Then we'll have it for the winter and after the growing season," says general manager Carl Purvenas-Smith, who sells at the Clarendon Farmers Market and the USDA Winter Farmers Market, both on Wednesdays.
The value-added market has become so lucrative for Terrapin Station that Purvenas-Smith figures 60 to 70 percent of its products are now prepared items vs. freshly harvested ones. "We find that we make a lot more money on the value-added than we do on the just the regular [product]," he says.
The next tier down in the value-added hierarchy includes chefs like Nathan Anda of Red Apron Butchery and Stefano Frigerio of the Copper Pot Food Co., who are not farmers but who have developed relationships with farmers. The chefs use local ingredients to produce charcuterie (Anda) or pastas and jams and sauces (Frigerio) to sell at local markets.
Then there's someone like Venable, the man behind TommyV's Salsa. He's not exactly a farmer and he's not exactly a chef, but his business incorporates elements of both professions. He grows his peppers indoors with an aquaponics system, an unusual combination of aquaculture and hydroponics. He then uses his chili peppers to concoct custom-made salsas, including the guilty-pleasure Fugosa, a blend of tomatoes, jalapenos and liquid smoke, and his tart, pureelike Cran Slam'n, a cranberry salsa with jalapenos, evaporated cane juice, mango and orange juice. In season, Venable says, he might buy tomatoes from local farmers, but obviously some of his ingredients can arrive only from locales far away.
It's not clear where Abbie and Ron Pence get their kernels for popping. It's a trade secret and a secret to their success. They've been popping kettle corn for 12 years, ever since they both retired from their previous jobs to produce these plastic bags of popped corn, which are absolutely addictive. The Haymarket couple recently moved into local farmers markets after many grueling years of working state fairs.
Then there's Fred Jackson, the smoke expert. Whenever he appears at the Smart Market, Jackson buys mostly from Angelic Beef, the Fauquier County operation that produces naturally raised, hormone-free beef from Piedmontese cattle. When pressed, though, Jackson admits that he turns to giant food-service providers to supply meat for his catering events, which is perhaps why some at the farmers market think he uses Sysco-brand beef and pork in Gainesville, too. But on this Sunday, the first one of 2011, it seems that Jackson is generating an even bigger controversy than the source of his proteins. He has rattled a neighbor at the Virginia Gateway shopping center.
"The [shopping center] property manager got a call from Ruby Tuesday, and they were not happy that we were there with Uncle Fred," Smart Market director Janssen says a few days later. "They considered that competition."
So the value-added barbecue vendor has, on this day at least, become a liability. The Smart Market will be forced to relocate to another spot in the shopping center, down near Target, where the vendor tents are not so well protected from the winter winds.