- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 10, 2002

Tony Ricci knows the farmer's plight well. About 22 years ago, he started his own farm with a few hundred dollars, a little bit of land and a pickup truck. Mr. Ricci, who grows a large variety of vegetables on about 10 acres in Three Springs, Pa., understands that it is difficult for small farmers like himself to make money.

But he and other farmers are increasingly discovering the money-making potential of farmers' markets, which have jumped in number in Maryland, Virginia and the District over the past decade.

"A lot of farmers go to a lot of different markets," Mr. Ricci said. "In fact, it's one of the few ways farmers can make any kind of money."

Small farmers are finding it more difficult to compete with big corporate farms and have been trying to find new ways to make money. Many have set up shop with groups of farmers in urban centers where they sell their fresh produce and other agricultural goods directly to consumers.

Farmers gather in crowded town centers, near shopping centers or in empty parking lots to create an open market in which customers can do much of their shopping for fruits, vegetables, baked goods and even some dairy products such as eggs and cheese. Most of the markets have rules that all of the products must be locally grown or produced, and most often, the farmers themselves man their stands and field questions from customers.

Tony Evans, who heads the effort in the Maryland Department of Agriculture to promote the markets, says the markets help farmers eliminate the middleman.

"If they sell wholesale, they sell for half or less what they would sell at a farmers' market," he said. "They can't stay farmers for very long at those prices."

Susan Simpson, special programs manager in the marketing division of the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, said small producers, which make up the majority of farmers in the Mid-Atlantic, find farmers' markets an especially suitable venue for selling their goods.

Maryland and Virginia have set up offices to help promote the markets, and they are involved in starting new ones. The agriculture officials help recruit farmers and set guidelines for what the farmers can sell.

Farmers' markets can be more profitable for those smaller producers who "generally can't enter the retail center," she said.

The number of farmers' markets in the Washington area has increased dramatically over the past decade. Maryland boasted an increase from 20 in 1990 to 72 in 2002. Virginia has 69 markets this year, about eight more than there were last year. Washington has about one dozen within the city limits.

Their popularity is due to several factors, say those involved in the markets. Farmers can make more money selling directly to the consumer, and consumers can find fresh, locally grown produce at prices comparable to local grocery stores.

"The average box of produce in a supermarket has traveled at least 1,500 miles," Mr. Evans said.

Mr. Ricci, who drives 150 miles early every Sunday morning to the Takoma Park Farmers' Market from his Green Heron Farm, says customers appreciate being able to speak directly with the farmer who grows their produce.

"It really increased your credibility," he said. "It's really important for us to have that personal connection with the customer."

Many farmers use customer feedback when deciding which crops to grow each year, Mr. Evans said. Customers ask questions about the way produce is grown, chemicals and the differences among varieties of the same crop.

"People develop personal relationships with various vendors," Mr. Evans said.

But farmers caution that the markets can't thrive everywhere.

Calvert County farmer George Spence said many markets draw too few customers to make it worth farmers' time to travel to them.

"It takes a special clientele," he said, remembering the time he sold $7 worth of produce in four hours at one startup market.

Al Smith, executive director of the D.C. Federation of Farmers and Customers Markets, said customers and farmers benefit from the markets.

"According to the community, it's the greatest thing since sliced bread," he said.

But the farmers' market coordinators say they wish they had more farmers to participate in local markets. Both Mr. Smith and Mr. Evans said the more markets there are, the fewer farmers can be found at each one.

"I wish I had 30 more farmers," Mr. Evans said.

Another problem facing farmers and market organizers is finding a good place to set up shop. Although the number of markets has increased, not every new market is successful.

Mr. Ricci travels from Pennsylvania to Takoma Park because his farm is located in a poor area of the state, he said. It is also more rural, which means fewer customers.

When you come to a market like Washington, "the return is a whole lot better," he said.

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