Capital News Service
BELTSVILLE — The popularity of farm-fresh produce has brought about a boom in the number of farmers markets in Maryland, but that success has brought problems of its own.
“There just doesn’t seem to be enough farmers out there to satisfy the demand that consumers have for these markets,” said Pat McMillan, assistant secretary for the Maryland Department of Agriculture.
About 150 farmers, vendors and market managers met Thursday at the Maryland Farmers Market Conference where the MDA and other agencies discussed food safety regulations, licensing and federal nutrition benefits programs.
“One of the purposes of this conference is to bring everybody together to see what we can do collectively and individually to make these more vibrant venues for our farmers to sell and sustain this enterprise that has been growing in leaps and bounds for decades,” McMillan said.
At farmers markets, consumers can buy local produce, poultry, dairy and meat directly from farmers or vendors.
There are 110 farmers markets in the state, and at least one is available in every county, according to the tourism office. There were no available figures for the rate of growth of the markets in the state.
Jack Miltenberger, a Cumberland-area farmer, has been with the farmers market in downtown Cumberland since it began in 1991.
“We could use a few more vendors,” Miltenberger said on Sunday. “For example, we could easily sell more strawberries than we can get.” He expects there will be about 25 vendors when things get under way on May 30.
Miltenberger said demand for produce is expanding. “We are not necessarily the cheapest, but we offer a quality local product,” he said.
Besides the Allegany County vendors, others come from nearby West Virginia and Pennsylvania counties.
“The two that are the farthest are probably Kingwood, W.Va., and Martinsburg, Pa.,” Miltenberger said.
The Saturday market at Canal Place will be offered again this year. Miltenberger said he sees that venue growing in popularity.
The market season typically begins in May and runs to October or November, and several markets are yearlong.
Each market is individually managed and can determine from how far away participants may bring their wares and still be considered local, said Amy Crone, agricultural marketing specialist at the MDA. The term “local” can encompass farms in Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia and Pennsylvania.
The high cost of breaking into the farming industry was noted as one reason for the deficit of farmers able to supply the markets.
McMillan said agricultural land in Maryland is routinely sold from $7,000 to $10,000 an acre. He said that supporting small-scale farms is the best way to help the industry grow.
“Farmers markets are one of the only entry points, practically speaking, for someone interested in farming that maybe wasn’t born into the occupation to get their foot in the door and actually make a living at it,” said McMillan.
Jennie Dorrell owns Lavender Hills, a family-run farm in Lineboro that has produce and livestock. Dorrell agreed that land costs are an impediment to starting farms. She got a good deal on her land because she knew the seller, and since then she has been able to slowly expand her operation.
“If you weren’t born with a silver spoon in your mouth, you just kind of have to do things as the money becomes available,” Dorrell said.
Times-News Staff Writer Michael A. Sawyers contributed to this story.