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Baltimore’s two newest farmers markets benefit from growing ‘local food’ movement

Men with briefcases browsed the kale. Women wearing power suits and heels squeeze-tested the fruit. Corporate tycoons mingled with hardcore foodies in a lunchtime crowd that snaked its way through about 10 food and drink vendors who showed up for the debut of the Pratt Street Farmers Market on Thursday.

Customers buy fresh produce from One Straw Farm tent at the Pratt Street Farmers Market. (Maximilian Franz/The Daily Record)

Customers buy fresh produce from One Straw Farm tent at the Pratt Street Farmers Market. (Maximilian Franz/The Daily Record)

The gathering was hosted by the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore as part of the organization’s efforts to generate more activity along the major tourist-district thoroughfare. It wasn’t the typical market scene — or time, or structure — and that’s why it will ultimately be successful, said several vendors and patrons.

Held from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. on newly refurbished sidewalk space where Pratt intersects with Light Street, the market attracted mostly business professionals pouring out from the many surrounding towers and office complexes for lunch.

“Oh, this is definitely going to take off,” said Jean Clark, an M&T Bank employee, as she browsed fresh vegetables with her colleague. “People are always looking for something to do downtown at lunchtime. They’ve done the food trucks, they’ve done the harbor. So something like this is out of the ordinary.”

The Pratt Street Farmers Market is one of two new weekly markets to hit the city in recent weeks, bringing the total to about a dozen. Union Graze, a Hampden gathering hosted by several neighborhood businesses, debuted June 14 and was open for the second time Friday in the Union Mill courtyard behind Artifact Coffee. The market, held from 4:30 p.m. to 8 p.m., features live music and beer from Union Craft Brewing, the microbrewery down the street, in addition to 11 vendors selling produce, prepared foods, flowers and other goods.

There are at least 110 separate farmers markets in Maryland, a number that balloons each year as more people become interested in the idea that buying locally grown food helps support state and county economies, reduces the energy used to transport food over long distances and, potentially, improves their diets (because fresher produce has more nutrients than items harvested days or weeks earlier).

Though Baltimore’s two newest markets were both well-attended and offer a variety of vendors (the majority of which are Maryland-based), they can’t compare to the city’s oldest and largest — the Baltimore Farmers Market & Bazaar, which began in 1977. The iconic gathering is held Sundays from April through December under the Jones Falls Expressway, boasting nearly 100 vendors.

The rate at which new markets are popping up in neighborhoods across town speaks to the popularity of the movement, and residents’ willingness to spend a bit more for local products illustrates an important trend in consumerism.

Phyllis Franklin, a stockbroker who works in the downtown Transamerica building, said she rarely shops at farmers markets, but she would “absolutely” do so if it were more convenient.

“I love the idea of everything being fresh, and I love to support local businesses,” she said. “I just think that’s so important right now. I think the whole thing is great.”

‘Neighborhood is ready for something like this’

Although that sentiment was common among other Pratt Street market-goers, it was pervasive at Union Graze, which was born out of a passion for sustainable agriculture and the locavore mindset.

The market was launched by the owners of Woodberry Kitchen and Artifact Coffee (Hampden restaurants at the forefront of the “farm-to-table” concept) and Five Seeds Farm, an urban agriculture project that later expanded beyond the city.

Hannah Ragan, community events coordinator for Woodberry Kitchen, said the group decided to host a farmers market at that location because Five Seeds Farm already drops weekly boxes of produce there for members of its Community Supported Agriculture program.

“We had a huge turnout last week, which really proved to us that the neighborhood is ready for something like this,” Ragan said as she set up for Round 2 on Friday. “It’s been amazing because we have the benefit of [Woodberry Kitchen co-owner] Spike Gjerde’s longstanding commitment to sourcing locally, with the focus being on the growers. It all comes from his vision of the way a local food economy should operate.”

The Pratt Street Farmers Market, on the other hand, was created from an economic development standpoint. The Downtown Partnership recognized the popularity of the local food movement and saw its potential to contribute to revitalization efforts.

“People are certainly patronizing local food sources in a way that they weren’t five, 10 years ago,” said spokesman Michael Evitts. “There are a lot of [markets] now, but the ability of people to support them also seems to be growing … both in terms of their interest and their spending power.”

Another difference between the two markets is the cost to vendors. Union Graze charges a $25 vendor fee, which Ragan said helps pay a live band. That’s cheap compared to other markets, where vendors give a portion of their profits to the venue organizer, in addition to tent fees that can be as much as $150 to $200.

The Pratt Street market is free for vendors, thanks to the sponsorship of PNC Bank, which also funded recent streetscape renovations along Pratt. The idea, Evitts said, is to create programs that will attract more people.

It seems to be working.

“Today has actually been surprising,” said John Little, of Sharpsburg-based Spriggs Delight Farm, which offered its specialty goat cheeses Thursday. “It hasn’t even been half an hour, and we’ve sold more than we usually do in our first hour at most other markets.”

That’s likely because markets often start around 8 a.m., and vendors said the early-bird customers trickle in more slowly. Several said the time frame of the Pratt Street market is potentially more lucrative, because so many people take staggered lunch breaks throughout the afternoon.

“We’ve had a few different people already who paid for things but asked us to keep it in our coolers so they can come back and get it later after work or something,” Little said. “At other markets, we’ve had people turn down buying something because they don’t have anywhere to put it.”

The market was flanked by sandwich shops: Atwater’s Bakery on one end; Chez G on the other. Both enjoyed a steady stream of customers, but that didn’t seem to bother quick-stop eateries nearby.

At Nature’s Table, a café across the street, supervisor Marlin Reed was in good spirits. He said he’s not concerned about losing business, even though the market offers several prepared-food options.

“With them only being here once a week, it’s not going to affect us,” he said. “Getting new things, new businesses downtown — that brings new people. So this is only going to be a positive.”

Plus, some vendors only accept cash — good news for businesses outside the market, but a disappointment for some passersby, like the unsuspecting woman who lamented being caught without cash on hand.

“Well, I guess we can just go to that food truck,” she glumly told her companion. “They’ll take credit cards.”