FOUR YEARS and 20 government agencies later there are stubby carrots with long green tops, 2-hour-old corn, enormous, hydroponically grown red-ripe tomatoes and pale, round yellow-lemon cucumbers sitting where Redskins fans usually park their cars. On Tuesday in Parking Lot 6 at RFK Stadium, the nation's capital opened its first direct farmer-to-consumer market. That terminology is used to distinguish it from other farmers' markets where the vendor doesn't have to be the producer.
The project is part of a larger effort to bring food to inner city residents as more and more supermarkets have moved out of the area.
For their part, the agricultural extension agents want to preserve the small farms that surround urban areas. Every year more and more of them turn into tract housing. The only way these small farmers can make a living is by selling retail.
While similar markets in other cities have been thriving for several years -- Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York each has more than one -- the District has been wrangling over location, sanitation regulations, permits. It's the usual litany of bureaucratic fiefdoms, but finally enough doers, who know where the power lies, put their clout together and turned the parking lot into a Tuesday and Thursday farmers' market which will be open from 2 p.m. to 8 p.m. until the end of October. Ten farmers showed up the first day, from as far away as New Jersey, to sell some of the freshest looking produce this side of the District Line.
Strictly speaking, a couple of the farmers were not following the rules: They were selling produce they had bought elsewhere. How can you tell? Because there are no local peaches yet and with the exception of the hydroponic tomatoes, there are no local tomatoes. But those are the kinds of problems the farmers plan to police themselves.
At noon, two hours before the market was scheduled to open, there was hardly any sign of activity. Only the farmer from New Jersey, who wasn't sure how long it would take him to get here and two bureaucrats. By 1 p.m., the number of bureaucrats had increased significantly, but there were only three farmers. The bureaucrats were there to authorize the farmers to take food stamps, to check the accuracy of their scales, to see that the trucks were parked between the newly painted white lines, to set up the stage for the opening ceremonies which Mayor Barry was to attend. Barry was a very late arrival, reportedly delayed on Capitol Hill.
"I'm not wororied about the farmers," said one agriculture official."If they say they'll come they will. I'm worried about the people. Are they going to come?"
He worried a little too soon. By 1:15 the shoppers began to arrive and so did more farmers. Although the market was not scheduled to open officially until 2 o'clock by 1:40 money was already changing hands. The customers were lined up patiently waiting to buy the tight bundles of slim asparagus (the last of the season), the crisp green beans, the shiny zucchini.
Most of them had come from the neighborhood or nearby. RFK's Parking Lot 6 is not exactly in the middle of a teeming residential area, so if the market is to be successful, a lot of the people who go home via Benning Road will have to stop on their way.
That anyone came at all, farmers or shoppers, is a tribute to Al Smith, who is an agent with the D.C. Cooperative Extension Service. He has acted as the coordinator for all those 20 agencies, each of which is very jealous of its turf. Smith said he "always thought being a coordinator meant you got other people to do things for you, but unfortunately it doesn't." That's probably why Smith has been successful Mildred Brooks, executive director of the Mayor's Commission on Food, Nutrition and Health, has been working on this project for the last four years. Until Smith came along, Brooks was not getting the kind of cooperation she needed. She has nothing but praise for him.
"This market is ripe for the farmers," said Smith's boss, Bill Easely. "No one's ever tapped it before."
Frank Stiles, who with his wife and two helpers, drove his truck down from Hardingville, N.J., is eager for the market to be a success. Until three years ago he sold most of his produce to wholesalers. "This year it's 90 percent retail. There's more money in it because you eliminate the guy in the middle. Retail is the way to go and it makes customers happy." Stiles, who also sells at the Philadelphia and New York markets, says adding Washington will round out his week.
Melvin Lewis came down from Baltimore County. He has space at the Baltimore market and sells wholesale. Lewis, who has been farming all his life, brought along his fiance who said she'd been farming just a couple of months. "The retail market is good," Lewis said. "You have to do it or you can't make a living."
For the last four years Nora Zellers has been farming on the Eastern Shore and selling retail at her farm, and in Glen Burnie and Baltimore. She and another woman on a neighboring farm cultivate 55 acres, employ only women and firmly believe "you can sell a helluva a lot when you have shorts and a halter on.
"I love it: the people, the produce, swapping recipes, making new friends," she said. "It's good business."
The shoppers loved it, too.
"This is the first time I have ever bought fresh produce. The only place I've ever bought it before was in the supermarket."
"It's just wonderful because I can get fresh produce."
"I think they ought to have it here more often. The prices are quite reasonable -- compared to Safeway and Giant, definitely."
"I think it's a fantastic idea. I hope the quality of the food remains as fresh as it is today. The prices are a little better than the supermarket. If the quality is there I don't think people mind paying the price."
In fact the prices varied all over the lot.Some things were cheaper than the supermarket; some were more expensive. You could buy green beans for 50 cents a pound, 60 cents a pound and 89 cents a pound. In the supermarket they were 89 cents a pound. Green and yellow squash were selling at three pounds for $1.30 cents a pound, 50 cents a pound and 60 cents a pound; supermarket price was 59 cents a pound.
As the market becomes more established the variation in price is likely to diminish and as the farmers get to know the Washington market better they will adjust their prices accordingly. Most of them want to undersell the supermarkets, or at least be competitive.
There was cabbage for 20 cents a pound compared to 39 cents a pound at the supermarket; kale at $1 for 1/2 peck, (supermarket price 59 cents a pound); blueberries at 1.25 a pint (supermarket price $1.49); corn, $2 a dozen compared to 10 for $2 at the supermarket; green onions, 3 bunches for $1, new potatoes at 25 cents a pound, etc. On the other hand mushrooms were much more expensive at the farmers' market.
If the market is successful, the organizers hope to open others closer to centers of population. They are looking at a site in Anacostia and another at the Metro station near the District Building.
Smith said Tuesday was a success. "The people loved it and the farmers loved it. When you have that, you've got something good going."
Easley is a little more cautious.
"We've got to get the people there if it's going to work. We need all the help we can get."