Fertile area for farmers' markets

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Barbara Ruben
Bernadine Prince (left) and Ann Yonkers show off just-picked strawberries at the Penn Quarter FreshFarm Market in downtown Washington. They started the nonprofit farmers’ markets 15 years ago and now run 11 of them in D.C., Maryland and Virginia.
Photo by Frank Klein

Plump strawberries perfume the air next to leafy heads of romaine lettuce and spears of asparagus picked hours before at Bigg Riggs Farm in West Virginia.

The smells mix with the scent of kettle corn popped from corn picked at an Anne Arundel County farm, while a nearby vendor sells ice pops in exotic flavors — from hibiscus to cucumber chili to strawberry ginger lemonade — all made from local produce.

It may feel like a rural fairground, but this market is on a main street in downtown Washington, just a block from the White House.

For 3½ hours each Thursday, a busy block of Vermont Avenue closes to traffic for this farmers’ market — one of 11 sponsored by the nonprofit FreshFarm Markets.

Washington residents Bernadine Prince, 63, and Ann Yonkers, 70, founded the markets 15 years ago when they opened the first FreshFarm Market in Dupont Circle, catching the wave of interest in locally grown, good-for-you food.

A growing niche

“As soon as we founded FreshFarm Markets, we just knew we had started at the right time and place,” said Yonkers. “We weren’t the first farmers’ markets, but we were at the point where things just started exploding.”

Their message: “There is a tremendous connection between what we eat, how we grow it, our health and the environment. Everyone we talked to would applaud,” Yonkers said.

Their markets: today they have five in the District, two in Montgomery County, two in Northern Virginia, and ones in Annapolis and St. Michaels, Md. All sell only food grown and produced within the Chesapeake Bay watershed, about a 250-mile radius around Washington, D.C.

Yonkers’ and Prince’s enthusiasm for everything from peaches just plucked from the tree to artisanal cheeses has buoyed their markets’ growth. Last year, they drew 350,000 customers (workers use clickers to count patrons periodically) and 110 vendors growing food on 9,000 acres.

Nationally, there are more than 7,000 farmers’ markets, up 150 percent over the last 10 years. There are 38 in the District of Columbia alone, said Prince, who is also the president of the national Farmers Market Coalition.

Prince grew up in Ohio eating foods from nearby farms. “My mom was a Russian immigrant, and she didn’t know anything came out of a can or a box,” she said.

As an English major at Ohio University, Prince started a food co-op, but didn’t plan a career that related to food or agriculture. She got a master’s degree in anthropology and field archeology. “I used to dig in the dirt for other reasons, not for growing things,” she joked.

Yonkers came to farm-fresh food when she and her husband shopped at farm markets when they were Peace Corps volunteers in West Africa. Later, in 1991, she and her husband purchased a small organic farm in St. Michaels, Md.

“The first year, I grew asparagus. I tasted it, and it was one of those ‘aha!’ moments. I was just blown away by the difference in flavor between this asparagus and ones from the grocery store,” Yonkers said.

Getting off the ground

Prince moved to Washington with her husband Raymond in 1991 and, with her childhood memories of farms in mind, took a job as education director for the American Farmland Trust, a nonprofit group.

Friends introduced her to Yonkers, who had a background as a chef and culinary instructor as well as academic degrees in government and policy. Yonkers was hoping to start producer-only farmers’ markets in Washington.

“I’m a very wonky kind of person,” Yonkers said. “So I thought with all the hot air generated in Washington, it sure would be nice to have some fresh vegetables to eat,” she joked.

Prince felt the same way. While farmers’ markets were taking off with a small segment of the population, she wanted to make them more accessible to those who weren’t familiar with their benefits or might not have enough money to purchase fresh produce on their own.

“People were saying, ‘Why should I come to a farmers’ market when it’s cheaper at the grocery store?’ And we said, ‘You’re going to find varieties that won’t make it to the grocery store because this food is grown for flavor and not for transport. And it’s going to be as fresh as you can get it and very delicious.”

Prince used this argument with her bosses at the American Farmland Trust in trying to persuade the organization to sponsor the first markets. Although she said that “the policy guys there thought it was a dumb idea,” the organization agreed to open the first markets.

Five years later, however, American Farmland Trust had had enough of the farmers’ market business, and Prince and Yonkers began to operate the burgeoning business on their own.

Not only did they continuously add new markets, they lengthened the season for them. Most run from early April through late November. The Silver Spring and Dupont Circle markets are open year-round, offering canned fruits, cheeses, meats and other foods once the growing season is over.

FarmFresh’s newest market opens this summer in the Ballston area of Arlington, Va. FreshFarm Markets now has 20 seasonal employees and nine full-time office staff, in addition to the producers who sell at the markets.

Fresh, local food for all

The markets make an effort to attract low-income residents and seniors, and to do so will match the amount of federal and state food benefits for which customers qualify.

Six of the markets accept SNAP benefits (also known as food stamps), as well as special farmers’ market benefits offered through the Women, Infants and Children’s (WIC) program.

Shoppers 60 and older who qualify for the Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP) can also receive coupons for a small amount of farmers’ market benefits ($25 in Washington, D.C. and $30 in Maryland). For more information, call (202) 442-9397 in D.C.; (410) 841-5770 in Maryland. [See more details in this month’s Spotlight on Aging, on page 26.]

Leftover produce from the markets and fields is donated to local homeless shelters and food banks. FreshFarm Market farmers have donated more than 100 tons of food to D.C. Central Kitchen alone over the years.

Local chefs also do cooking demonstrations at the markets. “Chefs are the natural partners with the food. They need to help showcase and show people how to cook with fresh food,” Prince said.

“It helps people take a little fear out of seeing 10 different varieties of squash and saying ‘what do I do with that besides have it as a centerpiece on my table?’”

In another teaching venture, FreshFarm Markets created a garden and food education program at Watkins Elementary School in Southeast Washington. Teachers integrate the garden into their classroom lessons — everything from art to science, math, social studies, physical education and writing.

But some of the biggest beneficiaries of the work of the markets are the farmers themselves.

“I know we’ve made a difference for farmers,” Prince said. “I think if you’d go around and ask the farmers, especially those that started with us early, these markets have been the economic engine that has helped them survive.

“We have also nurtured young farmers and helped them go into agriculture because they’ve seen the advantage of being able to sell directly to customers in the city and make a decent living by doing that,” Prince said. “To me that’s the most rewarding thing.”

A penchant for produce

Yonkers and Prince often bring their work home with them — literally. Prince said she buys from the markets almost all the food she and her husband eat.

Even in 1998, when the couple turned their large Capitol Hill row house into a bed-and-breakfast inn, the breakfast ingredients were gleaned from the farmers’ markets. After about eight years, though, they closed the B&B.

“We just got a little burned out, scaled down and got a smaller place. But we still live on Capitol Hill,” she said. “And we grow flowers instead of vegetables because I don’t like to feed the squirrels and raccoons.”

The Princes have three grown daughters; two live in Maryland and one in Montana.

Yonkers hosted guests of another kind at her Northwest Washington house for a while: The staff of FreshFarm Markets worked on the top floor of the large Queen Anne-style house until the company grew too large and moved to a Dupont Circle office building. Yonkers and her husband Charles now live in an apartment near the National Zoo.

They spend about a third of their time at their St. Michaels Pot Pie Farm, named back in the 17th century because the farm sold pot pies to itinerant peddlers. Today, the organic farm has 100 free-range pasture hens that feed on grass, as well as a large garden with garlic, onions, tomatoes, spinach, herbs and flowers, as well as fig trees.

The Yonkers have a grown son and daughter, who were toddlers when the family lived in West Africa, during their Peace Corp stint.

Today the Yonkers have four grandsons, three of whom live only seven minutes away with their daughter and her husband. Their son and his family live in Palo Alto, Calif., but they all plan a big family reunion at Pot Pie Farm this July.

Like Prince, Yonkers primarily shops for food at her markets.

She recently had plans to stay at a bed and breakfast in Rappahannock County. Shortly before leaving town, she had purchased some morels, the honeycomb-patterned mushrooms prized by gourmet chefs, and couldn’t bring herself to leave them behind. So she packed them up and convinced the B&B owner to add them to the guests’ breakfast omelet the next morning.

“That’s totally characteristic of me,” she said. “If there’s something fresh and delicious, I will never let it go to waste.”