Farmers’ Market Vendors Share Stories and Worries

By Samuel Lopez, staff writer; photos by Samuel Lopez
Photo of a shopper at the farmers' market

Editor’s note: The farmers’ market is held every Tuesday until October 16, from 10:30 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. in front of Building 549.

On a humid Tuesday at the NCI at Frederick Farmers’ Market, Greg Walsh stood at his booth and offered shoppers a unique deal: correctly answer a small trivia question and get a discount on their next purchase. Those who accepted were directed to a nearby note that read, “What is the chemical formula for photosynthesis?”

The approach may seem out of the ordinary to some, but Walsh isn’t an ordinary vendor. A physicist and mechanical engineer with NASA, he and his family also run their own farm, Nuts About Berries, in Middletown. The farm itself is similarly unique—it’s one of the first in the area to follow the “beyond organic” movement, which aims to make organic foods better by monitoring and balancing soil minerals that are traditionally overlooked.

Walsh became interested in farming during the 1970s, when he worked on the first organic farm in Pennsylvania to put himself through college. Throughout his scientific career, the experience stayed with him, gradually growing into a desire to grow wholesome, minerally balanced organic foods.

Starting Nuts About Berries gave him a chance fulfill that desire as well as teach his teenage daughters about hard work, plant nutrients, and the complexities that occur in nature.

“I want to do this for my health, for their health,” he said.

The family now uses their farm to educate others. Along with the trivia questions, visitors to this season’s farmers’ market are likely to find soil infographics and maps next to the raspberries, blueberries, lettuce, and other produce on Walsh’s table.

The Twilight of a Tradition?

Despite the best efforts of Walsh and his fellow vendors, turnout is down and the market is struggling to stay profitable. Many of the returning vendors say they’ve seen a sharp decline, especially in recent years.

“Our truck would come over here with five clerks, and all five were busy,” said longtime vendor Shirley Lewis as she watched her granddaughter Stephanie run the Lewis’ Orchards booth. “Now, I come with one. … The business has dropped off.”

Lewis has participated in the market every summer since it began 21 years ago, bringing family members and all nine of her grandchildren to help. Over the decades, they have sold thousands of pounds of the orchards’ fresh cherries, berries, peaches, apples, and plums to NCI at Frederick staff, some of whom they’ve come to know well. But now, Lewis is concerned that the tradition may be at risk.

“I don’t know what the future holds for this market,” she said.

Other vendors have felt the effects of the situation, and they share Lewis’ unease. While they enjoy participating in the market, some—including Lewis—worry that they might have to withdraw due to declining attendance.

Farmers’ market coordinator Morgan Covert, NCI at Frederick Office of Scientific Operations, has been doing her part to buoy the market by adding more vendors, giving the NCI at Frederick community weekly updates about the specific merchandise each vendor plans to sell on market day, and increasing advertising for the market.

A mass withdrawal of vendors would be a major blow to the market and everyone involved: Covert; the dedicated shoppers; and—most of all—the vendors, all of whom depend on the market.

“We’re Trying to Get Started”

Tom Dixon, set up directly across the parking lot from Lewis, is one such vendor. He is the co-owner of the Caramel Kettle and a newcomer to the market. While 2018 is his fledgling business’ third year of participation, it is his first.

“We’re trying to get started, and this is one of the first places you start at, and you just build from there,” he said.

Although Dixon’s company is still finding its footing at the market, its wares have managed to stand out. Each week, his tables sprawl with bowls of homemade popcorn in vibrant colors and flavors encompassing everything from blue raspberry to buffalo wings to more traditional favorites.

“Caramel and kettle: they’re our top two sellers,” Dixon said.

Inspired by their own love for popcorn, Dixon and his wife, Mill, started their Taneytown-based LLC roughly five years ago. Caramel corn and kettle corn were the early mainstays—hence the business’ name—but experimentation soon led to a growing miscellany of flavors.

“Then from there, things just evolved,” Dixon said.

For the Dixons, participating in the NCI at Frederick market means connecting with the community and growing. They come each week because the market occurs in a pleasant and personally meaningful area. Tom, a U.S. Navy veteran, feels a special affinity with the people at Fort Detrick and NCI at Frederick, and he tries to meet new visitors every week.

Angela Bates and Abigail Busch of Washington DC Dills, located farther down the row of booths from Dixon, see the market as a similarly meaningful experience.

“When you work the farmers’ markets, you really end up building a great relationship and you learn to trust your neighbors,” Bates said. “We do try to take care of each other. We’re here together.”

This is Bates and Busch’s first year working with DC Dills and the NCI at Frederick market, though the company has been represented during previous summer and winter seasons. In fact, it’s gained a loyal following for its wide variety of cold-brine pickles based on the owner’s family recipes from North Carolina.

Despite being at the market for such a short time, the Bates and Busch believe they already understand its value for both the vendors and the shoppers.

“For farmers’ markets in general, I think it’s a really good idea,” Busch said. “You just get to meet face-to-face with people, and it’s a different exchange than [in] a grocery store.”

“[When] they see that they’re actually supporting a family, it makes a difference,” Bates added. “It’s kind of like the ‘Circle of Life’: it makes a big, nice loop where we all take care of each other.”

Unfortunately, without greater attendance, that circle risks being broken at NCI at Frederick.

Abigail Busch (left) and Angela Bates (right) working at the Washington DC Dills booth. Stephanie Lewis, Shirley Lewis’ youngest granddaughter, helps a customer. Popcorn flavors at the Caramel Kettle booth.