Rebuilt from scratch, Laurel Farmer’s Market returns
By ANGIE LATHAM KOZLOWSKI
Rebuilding a community farmers market from scratch may have caused Michele Blair, environmental programs manager for the city of Laurel, and Robert Love, director of the Laurel Department of Economic & Community Development, some sleepless nights, but both Blair and Love were thrilled with their first season as stewards of the new market after the final tent went down on Sept, 28.
The process of re-starting the Laurel Farmer’s Market “took about three years to get up and running,” Love said, whose office oversees the market. The city took over the effort from The Laurel Board of Trade, which stopped coordinating the project in 2018 due to a lack of volunteers.
Love’s department secured a $50,000 grant from the state of Maryland that enabled the department to upgrade the Laurel Quill Lot, named for the Quill family, the former owners of the property, on Main Street. The city’s Community Redevelopment Authority purchased the lot in 2013. Love said that the city leases the lot to the market and for other community events. The upgrades included the addition of four permanent picnic tables, a shade structure and a shed.
Blair noted that the market is now certified by the USDA to accept Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP/EBT) benefits. The market opened on May 7 and operated every other Thursday until Sept. 28.
Both Blair and Love had no previous experience in running a farmers market, so they have been on a significant learning curve. They leaned on vendors and customers for feedback that allowed them to create an inviting, positive venue. Love singled out Mark Ross, of Metro Microgreens, a family-run organic farm, and noted that he “was like a mentor to both of us.”
Ross was pleased with the market and the city’s efforts to restart it, but he noted the long pause (the market stopped in 2018) meant that it was “basically starting from scratch.”
“While the first week of the market was crowded, and very well attended with the mayor and city council coming for the kickoff, it will take some time to get the word out.” Ross said, adding that “Weekday markets are challenging, because most people shop at farmers markets on Saturdays and Sundays.”
Ross plans to return to the Laurel market next year. He had repeat customers this season, and customers recognized him from other area markets. “Everyone is super nice,” he said.
Alonté Cross, a member of Laurel Arts Council, organized live performances featuring local talent at the market throughout the season. “The music [was] a decent part of the draw,” he said. Mike Walls, a former city councilmember, played at both the first and the final markets of the season.
Cross has also performed at the market, though he was just shopping with his mother, Tonya Hunt, on Sept. 28. Hunt said she enjoyed supporting the market and had a couple of favorite vendors, including Cake’D by Niqua, for its chocolate chip cookies, and Shake and Serve Lemonade, for its cotton candy lemonade.
For Cake’D owner Niqua Wheatley, a first-time farmers market vendor, the experience was good. Her most popular items were her chocolate chip cookies and Virgin Island tarts. She encouraged attendance on social media, she said, and had a lot of Virgin Islanders that came for her products.
Emma Bailey, of The Bailey Bakery, was one of the first to sign up for the market; it was also her first venture into farmers markets.
“It’s nice to meet people and see other people’s stands,” Bailey said. “People have come back time after time to get my scones.”
Ali-damara’s Mediterranean Food was serving kebabs straight from the grill. Mohammad Ali Damara said, “The market is great. We would like to see it every Thursday next year.”
Organizers are eager to increase the market’s frequency and reach into new customer communities, too. “Having the market every week for consistency next year should help,” Blair said. During the off-season, she will also work to extend the shopping experience to seniors and those in need of transportation to the market.
The market attracted more vendors and people by word of mouth as the season progressed, much to Blair’s delight. It grew from nine vendors at the start of the season, to 15 at its peak, according to Love, who said “many people have approached us about participating next year.”
Love saw this season’s market as a huge success and said that it “really created a sense of place for the community.”