Customers Remain Content, Loyal
By Carla Garnett
Photos by Carla Garnett
On the Front Page...
At a little past 2 o'clock on a recent Tuesday afternoon, business seems to be booming at the NIH Farmers Market, held weekly during the growing season until 6 p.m. on a small patch of lawn at parking lot 41B. The long tables are filled to overflowing with every fruit and vegetable from arugula to zucchini, with tempting displays of fresh herbs and flowers and baked goods thrown in for good measure. Dozens of pleased patrons wander from one set of baskets to another, picking out goodies and collecting tips from farmers about cooking and gardening. Seems only natural that a mostly organic market located at a place dedicated to health would stay crowded.
And, seems like this year's drought had little or no effect on market business. But, caution some regular market vendors, things aren't always what they seem.
"It was pitiful," declares vendor Marie Welsh, whose infectious grin and cheery demeanor belie her words. She brings produce from her two Maryland locations Laurel and Taneytown and is one of the original farmers to join the market at NIH. "I lost nearly all my corn this year. I had some, but [the ears] were not as filled out as usual. People still loved it, because the flavor was still good, but I could certainly tell the difference. I also lost a lot of beans, peas and carrots. Most of my beets dried up and died too. The problem with this drought was that it started so early way back in April. When we've had droughts before, they've come in June or July. That way, we were able to save a lot of our produce."
Suspending for a moment his attention to customers' enthusiastic interest in his watercress soup recipe, George Kephart, whose Kephart Farms produces more beef cattle than the herbs and greens he was offering at the market, contrasts current vending conditions with those during the months-long dry spell: "Things are certainly growing a lot better now that we've had some rain. It's remarkable how quickly my pastures turned back to green. You can also tell if you look at the size of the vegetables now and compare them to the ones I was selling earlier. Today's are much bigger."
John Zawitoski, director of planning and promotion in the agricultural services division of Montgomery County's department of economic development, estimates regional farmers have experienced about a 50 percent loss in their fruit and vegetable crops. Tomatoes, it was generally thought, were the season's most-missed item.
"This year was certainly a challenge for many of our producers," he explains. "There was a lot less produce, and fruits and vegetables were generally smaller, although overall the produce was probably of greater quality. The flavors this year were probably a little bit better in most items because they weren't able to grow as large as they might have grown in previous years. That allows the sugars in the fruits and vegetables to get more concentrated."
Even farmers with irrigation systems suffer during dry seasons, he notes. "There is nothing like a summer thunderstorm to make a difference in a crop. The nitrogen released during the lightning is like a boost of fertilizer for crops."
Montgomery County is also considering ways to help local farmers recover from the drought. According to Zawitoski, whose office provides administrative and advertising support to the four farmers markets Silver Spring, Potomac, Gaithersburg and NIH in the county's association, legislation will be introduced soon to establish an emergency assistance program. A similar program rescued many producers 2 years ago after a less persistent dry spell.
In addition to the drought, which happens every now and again in the life of a farmer, some vendors were also wondering good-naturedly about customer demographics at the NIH market, given the agency's mission of health.
"Oh sure," says Mike Tabor, a former HHS employee who left federal service in the early 1970's for the farming life at Licking Creek Bend Farm in Needmore, Pa., "you come out here right about now on a Tuesday and it looks pretty crowded. But if you wait an hour or so, the crowd thins out quite a bit. It'll stay quiet until about 5 or so, when it picks up again. What we've been trying to figure out is why we don't get more NIH'ers out here shopping. I'd estimate that more than 50 percent of our customers are non-NIH people. I've even asked the surgeon general about it. There seems to be an inconsistency between how many NIH workers come and how much healthy food we have available around here."
Sure enough on this Tuesday, a completely informal poll found that fewer than half the customers shopping were NIH'ers. In fact, most of those browsing the wares are more likely to be neighbors some from as far away as the D.C. city limits living in the areas surrounding NIH than folks employed by its mission.
"I come here every week," admits Sue Larsen, hands full of items from the Red Wiggler Foundation, a 123-acre farm founded in 1996 as a nonprofit horticulture therapy and vocational training program for adults with developmental disabilities. "I've only missed 2 weeks this year."
"Oh I come here all the time," agrees Claudia Sayre of northwest D.C. "It's a Tuesday ritual."
Marvelous Market, which was cornering the market on freshly baked breads and other items from the oven, debuted this year at the market. "I'd have to say traffic was pretty inconsistent," says MM vendor Giovanni Lizana. "Heat was certainly a factor. It was so hot and dry this year. I think that kept a lot of people indoors. On the days when we did get a good crowd, I recognized a lot of familiar faces. We seem to get lots of return customers."
NIH'ers weren't completely unrepresented in the fresh fields, however. One employee of the Office of Financial Management was expressly grateful for the market's proximity and selection. "Thank goodness they were here," enthuses Sylvia Bennett, who works in the NIH budget office and is a market regular every week. "Compared to the supermarket, the quality here is always so much better especially during the drought. The prices are better here too."
The NIH Farmers Market is open every Tuesday from 2 to 6 p.m. through Nov. 30.
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