On a sweltering late afternoon last week, Dale Ball went shopping, strolling through the stands at the weekly Purcellville Farmers Market.
Stopping in front of the white tent of Roxley Farms, Ball studied a marker board listing cuts of meat and prices. Pondering, she asked the man behind the table, "Were they happy cows?"
"Let me show you the pictures! They're dancing in the fields," replied Chris Lotze, who would know, since he and his wife, Evie, raise the cows that they sell at the market on their 75-acre farm in West Virginia.
Lotze can tell Ball exactly what the cows ate and when, how they were slaughtered and what kind of life they led. That kind of detailed information about food origins, out of the mouth of a local grower, is what brings Ball -- and an increasing number of others -- to farmers markets across the region.
To keep up with demand, the markets are innovating with the times. The introduction of beef and other meat products, kept on ice and sold in vacuum-sealed packages, has been one such change.
For Ball, a vegetarian, the extension of the farmers market ethos of all-natural products grown locally to meat has been a welcome change -- she eventually bought several bags of hamburger meat to serve to guests at a party this weekend.
"We're eating more and more organic," she said. "If you've got to eat meat, this is the way to go."
The markets are drawing in new crowds, too, with a spiraling expansion of products, including breads, honey, and, of course, dozens of varieties of produce.
"Over the past five years, there's been a diversification," said Floyd Blethen, who sells shiitake mushrooms at the Purcellville market. "There are more different kinds of items."
Regardless of the product, the key to selling is in-depth information about the food's purity.
For a time, the Round Hill Arts Center sponsored a weekly all-organic market. Hope Hanes, artistic director for the center, said the market was becoming more and more popular, the "organic" label bringing in shoppers from across the region.
"That was definitely the draw," she said. "I had people coming out from Leesburg because they want to go to an all-organic farm."
She said the center was forced to close the market because produce had been provided by the Blue Ridge Center for Environmental Stewardship, which is experiencing financial troubles. She said another organic market would find buyers in Loudoun.
Farmers are also working to introduce technology into their booths. Waterford Vineyards, which sells its products at the Thursday Purcellville market, lets customers use credit cards, swiping them through a portable device connected to a Cingular network.
"We have people who would buy a bottle, but they buy two" with a credit card, said Vicki Fedor, who works for the vineyard.
Technology pervades the market in other ways, as customers collect business cards complete with vendor Web sites. The Lotzes regularly exchange e-mail addresses with customers. On Thursday, one shopper said she'd like to buy a quarter or half of the next cow the Lotzes send to slaughter. The farmers, retired professionals, typically send only two a month for processing, so they promised to e-mail the next time they did so.
More farmers can offer credit card sales now that the town of Purcellville offers free wireless Internet access downtown, said Warren Howell, agricultural marketing manager for Loudoun County Economic Development. His department as been encouraging them to try it as a way to encourage shoppers to spend more.
But he said purchases still tend to be small and cash-driven at the markets.
"The technology is there, but our people haven't caught up to it," Howell said.
Chris Lotze said he and his wife encounter customers every week who would buy more meat but don't have enough cash on them to do so. But they said they won't make the transition until the town provides electricity to the parking lot where the market is held, as well as the Internet.
Without credit card technology, they instead rely on an older form of farmers market payment: neighborly credit.
Pushing a baby stroller filled with groceries, Waterford resident Amanda Kennett sadly told the Lotzes that she had used up her cash at other stands and would buy meat, if they took cards.
"Will you be back next week?" Chris Lotze asked, to her nod. "Then owe us. Pay us then."