Local farmers reap benefits of local buyers
Push continues to help Southern Maryland eat better, cheaper
For those who believe in the old saying that you are what you eat, access to healthier food options has never been more important.
Public officials in Maryland have been searching for healthier choices for their constituents for years now. Prince George’s County recently approved legislation permitting food trucks in certain “hub zones” to create healthier food options for their citizens. Charles County officials
are contemplating taking similar action.
Thanks to farmers markets spread across Southern Maryland, residents have healthy food options and are able to access them on a weekly basis.
Seth Koons, market master of the La Plata Farmer’s Market, said in recent years he has seen healthier food choices become increasingly important to different people.
“It seems society has become ever more aware of the food we eat and how it affects our well-being,” Koons said.
The state’s Buy Local Challenge, which starts July 23 and lasts through July 31, gets citizens and businesses to pledge to purchase food grown nearby throughout the week. But there are only so many options for people to do that throughout the state, and many of them are in Southern Maryland.
In Charles County, the La Plata market is open for business every Wednesday from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. and every Saturday from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Koons said anyone who comes by will always find fresh and homemade food.
“I wouldn’t go as far as to say they replace the grocery stores in town, but the market certainly provides the town with a quality alternative,” Koons said.
With marketing materials provided by the state, the vendors distribute Buy Local Challenge products at their individual booths. Buying local food is important for the community, Koons said, because of the familiarity with the product. The La Plata Farmer’s Market typically has about 11 vendors on Saturdays and about six on Wednesdays, Koons said. Vendors have to pay a fee and be cleared by the county’s health department before they open shop.
No, it does not replace grocery stores, Koons said. But buying local products gives you more insight on where the food is coming from and puts you in direct contact with the people producing it. Many vendors and operators are local to the area.
“Buying local food is important in the sense that you know the quality of the product you are getting,” Koons said. “And, sometimes more importantly, where it’s coming from.”
Koons said giving people a place where they can purchase local, healthful foods “at good value” is the most important function of the market. That’s the priority in La Plata, he said.
In St. Mary’s County, David Paulk, who owns and operates Sassafras Creek Farm near Leonardtown with his wife, Jennifer Paulk, said farming culture and buying local is starting to become more and more important to people. It is growing increasingly difficult to get people into farming, David Paulk said, but it still remains a profitable industry. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2012 census data on farming (the most recent available), Southern Maryland farms showed an increase in revenues during the previous five years. From 2007 to 2012, Calvert County farms’ average sales increased from just over $14,000 to $41,417. Charles County’s increased from $21,287 up to $31,273 in that same time period and St. Mary’s County’s increased from $25,680 to $34,494.
David Paulk said he expects revenues from farming to keep growing once that data is updated. People have prioritized eating healthier and buying local products they can trust, he said. That brings more business to farms and farmers markets.
The Paulks have “always grown organically and always had gardens,” Jennifer Paulk said. It was only a matter of deciding to turn it into a profitable venture as their gardens kept increasing in size and her husband grew closer to retiring from the Navy, she said. In 2010, she said, they finally decided to sell their organic produce at the local farmers market in California at the BAE Systems parking lot on Route 235.
“We had such an incredibly positive reaction from the people at the market that convinced us we should give it a go,” Jennifer said. “All of this came together and we bought a bigger farm. And it’s just been growing every year since.”
The Sassafras Creek Farm, located just north of Leonardtown, operates on 80 acres with organic produce such as arugula, kale, squash, cucumbers and dozens of other products. Jennifer Paulk said people put in special requests for different products they may want throughout the year. Requests are almost always granted, she said, sometimes depending on the growing season.
“But it’s all about what our customers want,” she said.
David Paulk said they try to give their customers something unique, such as garlic, which is rarely grown in Southern Maryland, he said.
“We brought a lot of diverse vegetables and we readily identify with people being certified organic. We just filled a niche that was underserved,” David said.
Buying local products from a store and buying from a farm are two different things, David said. Sometimes, the food on farms is cheaper, but it comes with a bond and a trust that “you just can’t get” at supermarkets.
The Sassafras Creek Farm does have a positive outlook on business, though Jennifer Paulk said she would like to see more farmers markets in more locations throughout Southern Maryland.
“There’s a strong market here with the public, but I personally don’t think there are that many farmers markets,” she said. “The numbers are increasing as they are around the country, but the market is still really good.”
The market is primed for growth, David Paulk said, with the region being so close to Washington, D.C. People often come from the city, he said, to buy local products. But the more markets, the better, he said.
Benson Tiralla, who runs Monnett Farms in Calvert County alongside his wife, Jamie, said the market consistently has traffic from all over, but a
majority of it comes from Southern Maryland.
Tiralla sells livestock and meats, he said, from both his farm and the BAE parking lot farmers market in St. Mary’s County. He said he travels to St. Mary’s County because there are more markets in the county and it expands his client base.
The market in Southern Maryland is good, Tiralla said, but there could be a wider range of places to sell.
However, Charlie Cox, a farmer at Spider Hall Farm in Calvert County, said having more markets does not necessarily bode well for farming culture and farmers in the region.
Cox said his family has never used a farmers market to sell their products and has always sold from a roadside stand at their farm. The profit has always been there for them and the same emphasis on buying local still stands, but adding more markets to the area only dilutes the product more and more.
“In my opinion I don’t really think we need more. It’s similar to the pros and cons of business,” Cox said. “If you flood the market with more locations, you might see an increase in business but you’re going to see a decrease in volume [of people] at each farmers market.”
Having consumers know who they are purchasing from is important in farming culture and business, Cox said. People who come out to buy local products can get to know the people who they purchase from, he said. Products may be more expensive, he said, but there the options are ultimately healthier.
At the Spider Hall Farm stand, they put a premium on customers getting to know the Cox family, and how their food is produced. Their best advertising comes from their customers, he said. “My dad always says word of mouth is the best method of advertising.”
Cox said he does a lot of the behind-the-scenes work of growing, harvesting and taking care of issues on the farm while his sister handles the business of the farm stand.
Still, he said, he is able to get to know the people who are buying from them and he can show people what his work entails.
Cox, who is the current chairman of the Young Farmer’s Committee in the Calvert County Farm Bureau, said a family running a farm together is not necessarily considered an appealing lifestyle, but he thinks it should be.
“It’s not hard at all. We try to live a very humble lifestyle. Some people say it’s a little slower paced, but I haven’t seen it slow since I’ve gotten into it,” Cox said. “We’re going every day of the week. It looks like a difficult lifestyle, but it’s not. I like to think of it as very honest and very humble.”
Jennifer Paulk shows a customer how much her produce will cost at the Sassafras Creek farm stand in the BAE parking lot in Lexington Park.
This small “local grown” sign lets customers at the La Plata farmers market know where their tomatoes are coming from.