Bernadine Prince, left, and Ann Harvey Yonkers founded FreshFarm Markets 18 years ago and saw it grow into a success. Now they are looking to turn the organization over to new leadership. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

On a good day at the Dupont Circle FreshFarm Market, more than 6,000 people might browse among nearly 50 farmers and producers selling such items as fruits and vegetables, kimchi and raw-milk cheese, all spread out along nearly two city blocks.

By the end of November, the year-round Sunday market had logged more than 216,000 shoppers last year, accounting for over half of the more than 417,000 customers who visited FreshFarm Markets’ 13 locations around the region.

None of that existed before 1997.

Now, 18 years after founding one of the most prominent farmers market groups in the country, co-executive directors Ann Harvey Yonkers and Bernadine “Bernie” Prince plan to step down. As FreshFarm searches for a successor, the founders are reflecting on their legacy — and imagining the organization’s future without them.

When the Dupont market debuted, there was not another producer-only farmers market in the city. At a producer-only market, vendors must either grow or make what they sell. Locally, that model was already in place at markets such as Takoma Park, Arlington and Falls Church. But in the District, the handful of existing markets served as middlemen between growers and customers, or featured a mix of the two models.

In terms of bureaucracy, infrastructure, overall concept and professional experience, Yonkers, Prince and their farmers were entering territory uncharted in the District.

At the time, Prince, a longtime local food proponent, was working at American Farmland Trust, which was the market’s umbrella group until it and FreshFarm parted ways in 2002. Yonkers, a food advocate with a culinary degree from L’Academie de Cuisine, had worked on a number of cookbooks, including one with chef-restaurateur Nora Pouillon, whom Yonkers credits with first floating the idea of a local producers market modeled after New York’s Greenmarkets.

“Those first 15 farmers were a little brave, coming to market with two women who’d never run a farmers market before,” Prince recalls in the nonprofit’s Penn Quarter office.

The gamble has paid off.

Mark Toigo, a FreshFarm board member who sells at multiple FreshFarm markets and almost a dozen other area markets, was at Dupont from Day One. Back then, growers weren’t too interested in selling at farmers markets.

“Truth be said, I didn’t know where it was going. But we were struggling to grow, like all companies, like all businesses,” he says. “The first year it creeped along, but then it took off.”

He says he’s convinced that without such a direct-to-consumer opportunity, his Toigo Orchards and other family farms would have long since ceased to exist, agreeing with Prince’s assessment that the markets represent an “economic lifeline” for producers.

Robin Shuster, the founder of Markets & More, which operates the 14th & U and Bloomingdale farmers markets in the District, says she appreciates the work that FreshFarm has put into the producer-only model, which involves meticulous vetting and site visits.

“They really became the best farmers market in the city,” Shuster says.

And there are plenty of other markets out there: almost 40 in the city, part of the more than 170 in the region, as counted by The Washington Post in 2014 for its annual farmers market map. According to the USDA’s National Directory of Farmers Markets, the number of markets around the country jumped from 2,746 in 1998 to 8,268 in 2014.

Numbers collected by the USDA, however, indicate that direct sales from farmers to consumers might be leveling off after years of steep increases. For his part, Toigo says he doesn’t expect double-digit growth, as in the past. Does that mean the supply of markets has reached a saturation point?

“The saturation is only sort of the number of farmers markets,” Yonkers says. More important, she believes, is the percentage of food consumed that is locally sourced. She says that figure is often cited as 1 percent, meaning that there’s still plenty of growth opportunity for endeavors like theirs.

FreshFarm founders Prince, left, and Yonkers speak at the July 1997 launch of the Dupont Circle FreshFarm Market, their first to open. Now the organization runs 13 markets in the area. (FreshFarm Markets/Courtesy FreshFarm Markets)

In the beginning, there was nowhere to go but up. What started in the pair’s home offices now occupies 2,000 square feet in the First Congregational United Church of Christ at 10th and G streets NW. The organization includes 12 full-time and six part-time employees and 50 regular volunteers.

The Dupont market has gone from a small parking-lot affair to a veritable street party that attracts residents, government movers and shakers and diplomats. Big-name toques serve samples through the Chef at Market program, and cookbook authors such as Mark Bittman and David Lebovitz set up shop to sell and sign their latest releases. Along the way, Prince and Yonkers have picked up a healthy crop of distinctions, including a Hometown Heroes award from WETA in 2008, a Mayor’s Sustainability Award in 2012 and a “Women Who Inspire” Community Service Award in 2006 from the national Women Chefs and Restaurateurs.

Yonkers, 73, and Prince, 65, are proud of what they’ve accomplished but are the first to admit that they’ve made miscalculations along the way: that although they were ahead of the curve in opening successful markets in growing neighborhoods such as Penn Quarter, H Street Northeast and CityCenter, not all of their markets flourished. FreshFarm markets in Georgetown and Baltimore’s Harbor East eventually closed, and a Union Market location that debuted in 2013 will probably see a revised mission and balance of producers this coming season. The women say they are constantly trying to adapt to the changing food environment. Shoppers continue to ask for more prepared foods, a request that they’re trying to accommodate by including more vendors that sell meals, such as at the food court-style FreshFarm Market by the White House.

“They’ve done a lot of exciting things. And they’re willing to try things that don’t always succeed,” Shuster says. “That’s very important.”

Prince and Yonkers know that much work has yet to be done by FreshFarm, and by farmers markets in general.

Diversifying the types of food sold at markets and through other channels such as community-supported agriculture (CSA) shares is key to nudging up those direct-sales numbers and ensuring that regions can feed themselves with local goods, Yonkers says.

Since the founding of FreshFarm, the number of producers offering meat, dairy and eggs has grown, though organizers would like to have even more. Yonkers also hopes to see more local grain production, such as that being done by FreshFarm vendor Next Step Produce, which sells rice, flour, barley and more at Dupont.

Shuster says she, too, would like more local dairy, eggs and grains at area markets, in addition to mushrooms and native plants. She has asked her producers to bring food foraged from their farms. One vendor decided to bring paw paws — and sold hundreds of dollars worth of the green fruit a week.

Physical and financial access to fresh, local produce will also continue to be an issue that market organizers will have to tackle.

“I would like to see every single neighborhood have access to a farm stand,” says Shuster. The stand, as she envisions it, wouldn’t necessarily involve the full-blown markets most of us are used to; rather, she suggests one vendor setting up shop with his or her wares, as well as food from other local producers. “You offer a complete experience, but it’s a small one.”

FreshFarm led the way in accepting SNAP/EBT (food stamp) benefits at city markets. The organization also has a relatively robust matching program for customers on nutrition assistance programs. Through November of last year, FreshFarm distributed more than $62,000 in matching dollars at 10 of its markets. But the need is still there. In addition to the markets’ own fundraising efforts, DC Greens, a group that works to connect city residents to healthful food through access and education, is pitching in as well. On behalf of such partners as the D.C. Farmers Market Collaborative and the District’s Department of Health, the organization has applied to the USDA for more funds to match SNAP benefits. If approved, the grant would match dollar for dollar SNAP money spent at markets across the city.

“Just like we planned the markets, we need to plan for our leaving,” says Prince, shown here shopping at the Dupont Circle market. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

Prince says she would love to have FreshFarm’s FoodPrints program, now in five District schools, expanded to all of them. The program integrates cooking, nutrition and gardening lessons into the student curriculum, centered on produce from school gardens, supplemented with items from FreshFarm’s markets. The limiting factor: As with many endeavors, funding.

Herb Miller, a member of the FreshFarm board and a longtime Washington developer, is leading another project focused on access to nutritious food.

“Our view is, what we need is a centralized place where everybody can have access to healthy food,” he says. The working idea is that the site will serve as a “healthy food innovation center and urban food hub.”

The consortium cooperating on the project includes FreshFarm, D.C. Central Kitchen, Martha’s Table, the Capital Area Food Bank, Union Kitchen, a Whole Foods Market nonprofit and the Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food and Agriculture.

Miller is looking for a location in the city that would allow for a permanent covered or indoor farmers market, which he and others say is long overdue in Washington.

“We’ve done a lot with the organization to begin some of these projects,” Prince says, “but that’s likely not to happen with us.”

Prince says a grant FreshFarm received for strategic planning purposes prompted her and Yonkers to start considering a succession plan.

“Just like we planned the markets, we need to plan for our leaving,” Prince says.

Yonkers says the idea is to go out on top and allow for plenty of transition time.

“You just don’t want to take this thing you’ve spent blood, sweat and tears building up, and just say ‘bye,’ ” she says, “so this is part of a sort of very conscious glide path out.”

FreshFarm board member Kathy Halverson is leading the national search for a new executive director. While Prince and Yonkers share executive-director duties, the organization’s new structure will have one person in that position. Four directors or managers will report to the executive, splitting up the pair’s current responsibilities among more people.

“It really is a big, big platform they’ve created for us, and we want to make sure that we’re finding someone that’s going to come in and take that platform and do their vision justice,” she says. “This person has to be an excellent manager, an excellent leader, someone with a big vision for the organization.” She wouldn’t disclose the salary but said it will depend on the chosen applicant’s level of experience.

Halverson says she expects the job listing to be open through mid-March, with a decision made by the end of May. The target date for bringing a replacement on board is July 1. Yonkers and Prince say they are committed to staying on into the early fall to ensure a smooth transition.

What’s next for the founders? Prince says she might end up staying on in her current position as president of the national Farmers Market Coalition. Yonkers says she still has “fire in the belly” for all the issues she’s tackled at FreshFarm and intends to continue to work on behalf of those, though not necessarily in the context of the organization she helped found.

Without a doubt, both plan to spend more time with their husbands on their own farms, Prince near Milton, Del., and Yonkers in St. Michaels, Md.

“I’m looking forward to being outside more,” Prince says.