Thursday, July 19, 2007

College Park’s super (fresh) market

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Christopher Anderson⁄The Gazette
Three-year-old William Bowman helps his grandmother, Anne Hedian, select some grape tomatoes from the Miller Farm stand at the College Park Farmer’s Market on Saturday.
William Bowman could hardly contain his excitement when he spied a box of grape tomatoes at the College Park farmers market.

‘‘Jellybeans,” the 3-year-old told his grandmother, Anne Hedian of Cheverly, who corrected him before catching up with her friend Kim Crews.

Meeting friends, buying fresh produce and knowing its origins are what the farmers market is all about, she said.

‘‘Part of it is being outside and seeing the different vegetables and produce,” said Hedian, who has shopped at the market for nearly four years. ‘‘It seems like more of a natural setting than the grocery store.”

Loyal customers like Hedian fuel the market’s success, said Phil Miller, market master and owner of Miller’s Farm in Clinton.

Miller said new customers regularly express surprise at finding the market, which operates on Saturdays from May to November in the parking lot of the Ellen E. Linson Pool and the Herbert Wells Ice Rink on Paint Branch Parkway.

Customer traffic has increased from about 200 people in 1979 to nearly 3,000 currently, Miller said.

An agent with the University of Maryland College Park’s Cooperative Extension Service started the market as a way to help south county farmers like Miller, who were finding dwindling demand for their tobacco.

‘‘If you don’t support them, they disappear. The only choice is Giant and Safeway,” said Estelle O’Kane of University Park, who has shopped at the market nearly every week since it opened.

In addition to the College Park market, others operate in Beltsville, Hyattsville, Laurel, Riverdale and Bowie, according to the state agriculture department.

Vendors and shoppers say the market’s prices are cheaper than the grocery stores and the wares are fresher, although at one grocery chain this week, prices for blueberries and six ears of corn are the same as, or slightly less than, the prices at the farmers market.

The market doesn’t restrict its wares to a particular radius, Miller said. While many of his items like cantaloupes, bananas and strawberries aren’t grown locally, he said he sells those items because his customers want them.

Although he occasionally fields complaints about not selling strictly local produce, signs show which items are locally grown.

Of the five original vendors, only Miller remains. Three vendors have died, and their families sold the farms, he said. The other vendor also sold his farm, Miller said.

Seven new vendors, six of them from Prince George’s County have joined, including farmers and women who sell baked goods, herbs and fresh cut flowers.

Eight to 10 early birds typically are waiting by 6:30 a.m., a half hour before the market opens, Miller said. The market closes at noon.

‘‘They come out and hit us hard. By noon, there’s not a customer in sight,” he said. ‘‘They want the first pickings. If they come in at 11, the produce may be picked over.”

Crews, from Adelphi, said she appreciates bonding with vendors, like John Swisher of Swisher’s Farm in Mitchellville, who has set aside blueberries for her, and Suzanne Montie of Red Chimney Flower Farm in Glenn Dale, who has advice about which flowers grow in the shade.

‘‘I get my fruits and vegetables for the whole week,” Crews said. ‘‘More people should come to the farmers market and not pay for shipping costs. We should eat foods grown closer to home.”

Other customers said they appreciate the market’s variety.

A diabetic vegetarian, Ronnie Taylor of Hyattsville, depends on the market for produce and spends about $30 every Saturday buying cantaloupes, zucchini, eggplant, red onions and cucumbers.

‘‘The tomatoes taste like tomatoes, not like cardboard in the stores,” he said.

E-mail Jennifer Donatelli at jdonatelli@gazette.net.