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Customers shop at the La Plata Farmers Market in Charles County, Maryland.

Spring has sprung, greenhouses are getting fuller, field planting has begun in some areas, and soon the opening of the 2021 farmers market season will be upon us.

What will that look like this year?

“As we learned over the past year, farmers markets are a critical source of fresh, local food products for many communities across our state,” said Maryland Ag Secretary Joe Bartenfelder, himself a farmers market farmer. “Throughout the pandemic, we have seen consistent demand and market managers have done an outstanding job ensuring that markets remain open as safely as possible.”

Maryland has about 100 farmers markets spread throughout its 23 counties and Baltimore city.

The largest producer-only farmers market in the state is the Baltimore Farmers Market and Bazaar, located underneath the Jones Falls Expressway at Holliday and Saratoga streets in Baltimore. The market opened for the season on April 4.

The statement put out by the market managers at the opening of the market is reflective of farmers markets across the state in regards to this year’s safety precautions.

The statement reads, “We are committed to providing an adapted market season that is healthy and safe for attendees, participants, volunteers and staff. Masks are required by everyone. Crowd density will be monitored, assisted by additional security, to ensure that proper distancing is possible throughout the market footprint. Additional hand-washing and sanitation stations will also be made available throughout the market footprint.”

Ready for Another Good Market Season

In Washington County, some farmers have increased their participation in markets because of their robust 2020 season.

“Everyone I have spoken to in regards to farmers and consumers are very excited and positive about this season,” said Leslie Hart, the agriculture specialist for the county Department of Business Development.

Farmers and market managers across the state echo that sentiment, saying that with a growing number of people looking to support local farmers, businesses and artisans, this year’s farmers market season has the potential to be the best some have ever seen.

“More than ever, people want a connection with their food source and are interested in knowing growing practices, so being able to interact with farmers at the local market is imperative,” said Kelly Middleton Bryant, a southern Maryland farmer. “After a year of unknowns due to COVID, our family is excited about bringing different varieties of kettle corn, jams, plants and produce to the customers at the La Plata Farmers Market, and we expect a busy year.”

Kelly Phipps, who manages the La Plata market, said the community continues to support the business.

“Our opening day this month was phenomenal, and there was a real feeling of us all living through this shared COVID-19 experience together,” Phipps said.

During the early stages of the pandemic in 2020, many grocery stores experienced supply chain disruptions, which helped promote local food, said Cheryl DeBerry, a Garrett County business specialist.

“I believe that as the pandemic restrictions ease, farmers markets will likely play an even larger role in food system activity,” DeBerry said. “Farmers are in a unique situation where more people want to buy their products. Now comes the difficult part of figuring out the easiest and most convenient ways for those customers to continue to access local foods.”

Safety and convenience became key last year when pivoting business models due to COVID-19, so some markets added online preordering, drive-thru pickups and even delivery.

Consumers liked these innovations so much that markets are considering keeping these services.

Karl Shlagel, of Shlagel Farms in Waldorf, is already seeing customers return to pre-pandemic buying habits.

“Hopefully some of the new customers we saw last year will continue to frequent the markets but we can’t honestly expect 100% retention. ...,” Shlagel said. “Hopefully some of them will remember we were here when they needed a secure food supply, and maybe that will lead to the next big step in the local food movement.”

Farmers and consumers also can access the newly expanded Maryland Market Money program, which provides a dollar-for-dollar match for purchases made using federal nutrition benefits, such as SNAP or WIC, at farmers markets.

“In 2021 we’re seeing record interest from farmers markets across the state in our Maryland Market Money program” said Heather Hulsey, Maryland Market Money coordinator for the Southern Maryland Agricultural Development Commission.

The commission runs the program jointly with the Maryland Agricultural and Resource-Based Industry Development Corp.

Editor’s note: Shelby Watson-Hampton is the director of the Southern Maryland Agricultural Development Commission.

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