News & Politics

Saturday Morning Stars: Washington Area Farmers Markets

As people seek out locally produced foods, more farmers in the region are making a living selling their fresh fruits and vegetables at the area’s weekend markets.

It’s raining at the Arlington Farmers Market this Saturday morning. Chip Planck, 67, dressed in a yellow rain slicker, arranges 17 varieties of tomatoes under a white tarp—rows of red Early Girls, eggplant-colored Cherokee Purples, striped and spicy Green Zebras.

“Everybody, please taste the lettuce!” Chip’s wife, Susan, calls out. “We have seven different varieties. We have tons of chard, mustard greens.”

Shoppers flit around the stand, picking up a red pepper or two, maybe a handful of tat soi, an Asian cabbage similar to bok choy. Lots of farmers compete to win a spot at the Arlington Farmers Market—there are many more applicants than there are slots.

Lines are so long that Chip often has to stop slicing samples for tasting and set up a third money box. Susan focuses her attention on customers. The chattier the farmer, she says, the more she’ll sell. Today Susan is talking—a lot.

“Rainy-day lettuce special—$2 a bag!”

Chip is quieter, preferring to offer a smile rather than a sales pitch, and the lines on his face reveal a lifetime of worries. He and Susan have never known job security, relying instead on a livelihood dictated as much by the weather as by the region’s demand for locally grown food.

Dozens of shoppers, many regulars, arrive almost at once, and Chip and Susan sell out of okra, squash, cucumbers, tat soi.

“This is a fantastic day, isn’t it?” Susan asks a customer. She’s overwhelmed by the number of people who’ve come to buy their vegetables. She throws up her hands and shouts: “They even come out in the rain!”

The region’s first few “producer only” farmers markets opened in 1980. In Arlington, the market started by chance. A woman wanted farm-fresh vegetables and asked county officials, “Why don’t you get some farmers down to the judges’ parking lot so we can buy food from farmers directly?”

Soon after, Chip Planck awoke at 6 am, bunched his beets and Swiss chard, and drove from his farm in Purcellville to Arlington’s Courthouse neighborhood, setting up a tableful of vegetables in a parking lot. He’d had his doubts—he wasn’t sure anyone would show up.

“Well, I got there and put out my little bit of wares, and swoosh—they were gone,” he says. “The customers essentially said, ‘Where have you been all my life, and when can I see you again?’ I thought to myself, I just made 100 bucks. You think I’d be stupid enough not to come back next week?”

Today there are about 90 farmers markets in the region. They’re everywhere from Mount Pleasant to Dupont Circle, Falls Church to Takoma Park. One in Prince George’s County’s Langley Park area sells sugar cane to immigrants. Most markets sell a variety of specialty items such as grass-fed beef, artisanal cheeses, heirloom vegetables, and homemade soap.

Farmers markets gained popularity as the foodie revolution gained momentum, with more consumers putting taste and quality over cost and convenience. The markets have evolved into bastions of ecoconsciousness, creating a movement of “locavores,” or individuals committed to cutting down greenhouse-gas emissions by eating locally produced food. The average food item travels 1,500 miles to our plates.

Lots of produce sold in supermarkets is bred for durability and maximum shelf life. Tomatoes are picked green and sent to a chamber where ethylene gas turns them pink. Unfortunately, the tomato doesn’t ripen inside.

“Could I Use Something a Little Less Harmful?”

Many people feel that every time they stroll through a farmers market, they promote the local-foods movement, support area farms, and make an environmental statement.

Agricultural runoff is the largest polluter of the Chesapeake Bay. If we buy from local organic growers, we shift dollars to fruits and vegetables that haven’t been sprayed with pesticides, which can harm waterways.

Few farmers at markets are certified organic by the USDA—they say the paperwork is a headache. But many grow using organic methods, meaning they find alternate ways of getting rid of pests, such as introducing a wasplike bug rather than sprays to kill beetle larvae.

“If you want American farmers to stop using chemicals, the best way to influence them is to put them face to face with a customer,” says Chip Planck. “Farmers can’t help but think: Could I use something a little less harmful?”

At local farmers markets, parents buying pesticide-free peaches quiz farmers about their growing practices. Shoppers tote cloth bags to reduce waste. Says farmer Georgia O’Neal of Tree and Leaf Farm: “For many people, shopping at a farmers market gives them a chance to put their money where their mouth is in a very literal way.”

Planck and his wife, Susan, sustained Wheatland Vegetable Farms by selling solely at farmers markets. They helped start the Takoma Park market in 1983 as well as several smaller markets. “It buttered our bread,” says Susan. “We wanted to convert all the farmers in Loudoun to vegetable farmers, but they thought we were crazy.” At one point, the Plancks were selling at 21 markets a week.

As their business grew, Loudoun farmers began selling off their land to developers while the Plancks used income earned at the markets to fix up their aging house, send three kids to college, and pay off their 60-acre farm. They passed their enthusiasm for fresh local food on to their daughter, Nina, who started a string of successful producer-only farmers markets in London in 1999.

The Plancks worked an off-farm job only once, right before the area’s first farmers market opened in Arlington. “These markets make it possible to make a living,” says Chip. At the Dupont market, some growers are rumored to make $10,000 in four hours.

Today, close to retirement, the Plancks sell only in Arlington, but they’re surprised by the growth they’re seeing. Says Susan: “Our sales at the Arlington market have doubled this past year. It’s not that old customers are buying more vegetables; more people are coming out.”

Local farmers markets are giving the next generation a chance to revitalize a family’s hobby farm or pursue careers in farming, and the markets are creating a new kind of farmer altogether. Young foodies, many of them college-educated environmentalists, are choosing to farm for markets, hoping they’ll change the world one vegetable at a time.

“Our Son’s First Food Was Squash From the Farm”

At the end of a long gravel drive in the shadow of the Shenandoah Mountains in Sperryville, Virginia, sit a couple of ramshackle barns and a gleaming house on a hill. Rachel Bynum, 34, leaves her three-year-old son, Nicholas, at home with her mother, who’s visiting, and walks down to the barn. She waves to locals pulling up to buy butternut squash, tomatoes, pumpkins, and peppers and begins bunching vibrant zinnias.

Her husband, Eric Plaksin, 34, parks his pickup truck next to the barn and unloads buckets of cherry tomatoes colored in reds, yellows, pinks, and purples. Tomorrow the tomatoes, flowers, and a truckload of additional produce will go to a farmers market in Charlottesville. On Sunday, the same things will be sold in Takoma Park.

Rachel and Eric met while attending Minnesota’s Carleton College. They were interested in ecology and farming but assumed agriculture was a losing venture. After college, Rachel got a job at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and also worked with Eric at the Plancks’ farm in Purcellville; at one point they were living in a tent on the property. They fell in love with growing seasons and farmers markets—and with the idea that they could support themselves by growing vegetables.

In 1998, they began looking for ten acres, a house, and a barn within a couple of hours of Washington to start their own farm. They could afford about $100,000.

They were quickly discouraged. It was as though the same people creating the demand for organic vegetables were raising property values. It’s a Catch-22 for farmers markets—you can’t make money unless you’re within driving distance of urban markets, yet many farmers are priced out of land near urban centers. Eric and Rachel realized that if they wanted to farm, they’d have to get creative about how they’d get the land.

Then they met Cliff Miller. Miller owns 850 acres in Sperryville and had rented out land to commodity farmers to grow soybeans and corn. In 1999, Miller, an animal farmer who raises grass-fed cows and lambs, decided he wanted to rent to several sustainable farmers, preferably young people. He called the Plancks at Wheatland Vegetable Farms and asked if they knew anyone who might be interested.

Within a year, Rachel and Eric were living in a migrant worker’s house on 30 acres of Miller’s land and planting rows of watermelons, tomatoes, and green beans. They named it Waterpenny Farm for the beetle larvae of that name that live only in clean water. Rachel and Eric promise customers that their growing practices will ensure that waterpennies living in the nearby river will be there for generations.

The couple couldn’t afford to buy the land, and Miller didn’t want to sell for less than market value, so they worked out a 40-year lease that ensures that Rachel and Eric can grow old there. Miller also lent them money to build a house on the property, which they pay back like a monthly mortgage; in 40 years when they retire, they’ll be paid fair market rate for it.

“Cliff’s not part of our business,” says Rachel. “He’s our landlord. He was interested in what we would grow and how we would grow it, but he wasn’t trying to give us advice after reading a few articles on organic farming—which you sometimes have with rich landowners. He wanted to be a better steward of his land.”

When Eric and Rachel brought their first harvest to the Takoma Park market in 2000, they were the youngest vendors. Now they say they’re one of a handful of younger farmers “going for it,” and camaraderie is one thing Rachel loves about weekend markets. In addition, they run a CSA—or Community Supported Agriculture—program, in which families prepay for a season of vegetables. Most farmers at local markets are happy to answer questions about joining their farm’s CSA.

Farmers trade stories—and often goods—and feel a part of something larger than their acreage. “I don’t know a lot of conventional farmers anymore,” says Rachel.

“I Want to Buy This Farm”

Eli Cook sold his first vegetables at a farmers market when he was 12. He and his brother planted tomatoes and green beans on an acre a friend had lent them and sold the produce at a market in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. Cook thought it was easy money, and soon he was planting crops on his grandparents’ land. At 16, he applied to sell at a market in Manassas; the first day, he walked away with $500. “My friends were at basketball camp,” he says, “and I was out there picking green beans. I got hooked.”

That summer, he added five more markets to his route, driving as far as three hours from Berkeley Springs, West Virginia, to Vienna on Tuesdays, to Rockville on Wednesdays, to McLean on Fridays, and to Manassas on Saturdays. “It was a lot of money for a kid,” he says.

After he graduated from West Virginia University—he continued to sell at Manassas, Reston, and Burke on Saturdays throughout college—Cook, then 22, decided to pursue a career in farming for markets. He asked a bank for a $150,000 mortgage.

He’d found 52 acres of farmland for sale in Slanesville, West Virginia, about half an hour northwest of Winchester. Two streams ran along the property, and he envisioned himself and his then-fiancée, Misty, building a house there.

“I want to buy this farm,” he told the loan officer. “But I don’t have anyone to cosign for me.”

The loan officer said he’d need to put down 20 percent; he encouraged Cook to come back once he’d saved $30,000.

Cook put his bookbag on the table and unzipped it. Inside was $30,000 in cash—he’d earned it selling vegetables at farmers markets.

Eli and Misty, both 28 and now married, trade off days selling at markets—he goes to Dupont on Sundays; she goes to Burke on Saturdays. Cook will get up at 2:30 in the morning, load the truck, and start the 2½-hour drive to Washington. He won’t get home until after 6 pm.

When he first bought Spring Valley Farm & Orchard, the locals thought he was a rich kid. They raised their eyebrows when he plowed the hay fields and began planting rows of vegetables. “They have a different mindset,” he says. “We’re the only ones doing this in our region.”

While Misty enjoys catching up with regular customers at the market, sharing pictures of their two-year-old daughter, Mulledy, Eli stays focused on business. He says working the Dupont market is “four hours of chaos,” and although he’d like to chat about Spring Valley Farm & Orchard, he often doesn’t have time. He doesn’t like shifting his gaze from the cashier. One Sunday, his money box was stolen.

Mostly, he’s busy making sure his stand is the market’s best. “I’m a really competitive person,” he says. Cook spends hours designing his stand—highest-price items such as tomatoes are positioned to lure shoppers in. Lettuce needs a shady spot; peaches glow in the sun. He’ll have a “salad” table where customers can buy such ingredients as lettuce, cucumbers, and carrots. French fillet beans are always next to new baby potatoes—people like to cook them together.

He’s an avid reader of Martha Stewart Living and the Washington Post’s Food section, and he plants the following season’s crops with trends in mind. “The people who come to market tend to read that stuff,” he says. A couple of years ago, Stewart’s magazine had an article about two pumpkin varieties to use in breads and pies, so Cook planted them. “They sold out in the first two weeks,” he says. “I was kicking myself for not planting more.”

Cook treats farming like a contest. It’s his goal to have corn or tomatoes before anyone else does. “I’ll beat people south of us who should beat us,” he says. “I’ll start corn seedlings in the greenhouse, plant them in plastic, put tunnels over the top—whatever we have to do to get it early. People don’t believe us when we show up in June with corn. So we’ll pull the stalk out of the ground and wrap it around our tent and put a dated picture next to it.”

Cook takes great pleasure when other farmers approach him and ask for his secrets. “I do exactly what my grandmother does with her recipes,” he says. “I’ll tell them almost everything and leave out the most essential ingredient.”

“You Don’t Need Much Land to Turn a Profit”

Farmers aren’t getting rich selling at local markets, but they are able to support a family, a notion that’s ever rarer in farm life. For one thing, you don’t need much land to turn a profit. Most farmers at the market grow on about eight acres, a far cry from the hundreds of acres needed to make money selling wholesale.

Consider the Cooks’ farm, which includes an orchard. A traditional orchard may pick 1,000 bushels of apples and sell them to a wholesale company for about $3 a bushel, earning around $3,000. On the Cooks’ farm, they’ll also pick 1,000 bushels of apples, but at the farmers market the apples fetch $85 a bushel, earning them $85,000 over the season.

Farmers say markets aren’t for everyone. You have to get up early every Saturday and Sunday, drive an hour or more to the city, and sell one on one to customers, who can be finicky.

As more farmers realize the potential of selling directly to customers, getting a spot in a high-producing market is becoming more competitive. Many farmers say it’s hard to get into the Dupont, Takoma Park, Arlington, and Falls Church markets, the biggest moneymakers. A farmer must submit an application to each one, and market managers often select farmers who’ve proven themselves at smaller markets or have an interesting mix of items.

Cook has a friend who wants to grow food on his grandparents’ land now that he has seen how well Cook is doing. “You have to do something kind of off the wall to get into these markets now,” he told the friend, who later decided to try greenhouse aquaculture, in which fish manure will fertilize his plants.

Last year, Cook brought what was left of his peaches to the Dupont market. An early freeze nearly wiped out his orchard, so he raised the price from $2 a pound to $2.49, hoping to break even. One shopper wandered into his stand, squeezed a couple of the fruits, and threw them down, saying, “Your peaches aren’t worth $2.49 a pound.”

Cook had to bite his tongue. “That’s borderline trying to make me snap,” he says. Cook wanted to yell back: “You weren’t up around Easter when we had five straight nights when it was 22 degrees and we lost 70 percent of our peach crop! We stayed up through the night looking at the thermometer wondering, ‘Is this going to be a year where we work all summer and not make one penny?’ ”

Farmers markets are not places to look for a bargain. Elitism is one of the main criticisms of the “eat locally” food movement. A low-income mother can use WIC—Women, Infants, and Children—coupons to shop at some farmers markets, but she receives only $25 a year for that purpose.

The higher prices are a sore spot for many farmers, including Cook, who says he works thousands of hours to bring food to market. “Some people will say, ‘You’re just gouging us,’ ” Cook says. “But there’s a reason why things are priced the way they are. It’s what we need to make a living.”

Farmers say people expect them to be poor. If customers decide you’re doing too well, they may not buy from you, which is why many farmers interviewed were uncomfortable sharing their income. “We’re making a middle-class living—on a good year maybe upper middle class,” says Rachel Bynum. “But that’s how it should be. A farmer should be allowed to make as much as a teacher does.”

Farmers markets are free-market economies—prices aren’t set. Still, most organic and ecologically grown vegetables fetch a similar price. If someone sells at a lower price, the other farmers get upset.

This past summer, at DC’s Mount Pleasant farmers market, most vendors were selling tomatoes for about $3 a pound. Another farmer began selling tomatoes for $2 a pound, infuriating the other growers. “I stood by my price,” says one. “I grow heirloom tomatoes, and they take a lot of time and labor. I couldn’t afford to lower my price. So I had to wonder why that farmer could—why he didn’t have pride in what he was selling.”

Fraud is a touchy subject. Many of the markets are producer-only, meaning farmers are able to sell only what they grow. FreshFarm Markets, an organization that manages several area markets including Dupont’s, keeps tabs on its farmer s to ensure they’re not buying wholesale and then setting up a stand. But not every market is so organized. Some “farmers” buy wholesale vegetables in the South and drive them north to sell at local farmers markets.

“I Couldn’t Sell the Vegetables Unless I Loved Them”

Zach Lester, 37, and wife Georgia O’Neal live in what might be called Loudoun County’s agricultural ghetto. The 2,000 acres of farmland surrounding Purcellville’s Tree and Leaf Farm is smack in the land of McMansions, where an acre sells for upward of $30,000. Because they couldn’t afford to buy their land, the couple became modern-day sharecroppers. A percentage of everything they earn goes to their landlord, the Plancks of Wheatland Vegetable Farms. Several farmers who sell at markets live nearby.

“It’s nice to live among so many farmers,” says O’Neal, 37, whose aging Volvo station wagon sports a bumper sticker: it’s not farmland without farmers.“We used to live in Waterford, and I didn’t like that as much. People are into society there. I grew up in that world in New York City, and I kind of wanted to escape it.”

O’Neal and Lester met at a Halloween party in Brooklyn one month after 9/11. O’Neal, a graphic artist, had watched the second World Trade Center tower fall: “My attitude changed after that. What I wanted in life was different, and I decided now was the time to do whatever that was.”

She was interested in environmental education, so she moved to upstate New York to work at a school focused on the subject. Lester, who was working at a farm in The Plains, Virginia, filled the bed of his pickup with vegetables and drove to see her.

“On our first date, we were talking about salad greens,” says Lester, “and she was saying, ‘I hate salad greens.’ I knew she was talking about all of the generic packaged salad everyone gets shipped from California. I was the salad-greens guru at the time, and I said, ‘I can tell you something about salad.’ ”

They were married a year later and established a farm that’s as much about beauty and taste as it is about ecology. Lester and O’Neal are foodies, and they believe they’re selling something very special. Says O’Neal: “I was standing at a friend’s apple stand, and someone came by and said she’d never had anything but a Golden Delicious apple. She was a grown woman! She said, ‘I never liked apples before, but I like these apples.’ It was an heirloom apple. I was like ‘Wow!’ ”

Until you go to a farmers market, you may not realize that there are dozens of varieties of tomatoes or eggplants. You may never have tasted a freshly picked heirloom apple.

Farmers at market wax romantic about heirloom seeds the way others might about a little blue Tiffany box. The seeds—from the best-tasting tomato or apple or pear—are treasures passed along from one generation to the next, and they produce near-perfect offspring. Heirloom eggplant isn’t at all bitter; heirloom tomatoes are as juicy as oranges.

For lunch, O’Neal may serve red and yellow tomato slices drizzled with olive oil and with a sprinkling of sea salt. When new vegetables such as the heirloom eggplant are harvested, she’ll cook it all week. “I’ll get obsessed with it,” she says. “At market, I’ll tell customers, ‘Even if you don’t like eggplant, you’ll like this eggplant.’ ” She’ll share recipes, describe the vegetable’s flavor, suggest what to serve with it.

Says O’Neal: “I couldn’t farm if I didn’t believe in it, and I couldn’t sell the vegetables unless I loved them.”

Lester inspects one of the hoop houses he recently constructed over rows of green-leaf lettuce, escarole, and tomatoes. It’s a simple arched structure built of recycled rebar covered in plastic. “With this I can extend peppers and salad greens, and let’s see how long my heirloom tomatoes might go. Usually, I can get them two weeks closer to November.”

Last year was an unusually warm autumn, with temperatures in October often climbing into the 80s. Lester is a believer in sustainable farming—he uses biodegradable plastics, composts his trash, buys lumber and metals from local sources to reduce his carbon footprint, grows cover crops to promote healthy soil. He recently started powering his greenhouse with biodiesel.

This fall, it seems that global warming is extending his growing season by a few weeks, and that’s going to help his bottom line at the markets—it’s a couple of extra days of tomato income. Still, Lester isn’t hoping for warming; this year’s drought evaporated much of the pond he irrigates from.

Instead, seasonal eating is treated like a religion, or at least standards to live by. He loves seeing the first asparagus shoot in the spring and cutting the first broccoli head in fall.

“Having tomatoes year-round out of a greenhouse—okay, that’s an accomplishment,” he says. “But field-grown tomatoes are an amazing experience.”

Three years ago, a few market managers decided to keep several farmers markets open year-round. There seemed to be enough people willing to come out on a 30-degree day to buy grass-fed beef or homemade soap.

So vegetable farmers such as Lester and O’Neal began thinking about extending their growing season, too. Now many farmers sell apples and beets through December, squash and onions throughout February. Rather than taking the winter off to relax, Lester and O’Neal work throughout the year. “But 100-hour workweeks are over,” says Lester. Those are the hours he keeps all summer, trying to pick vegetables and ready them for market before they spoil. “One of my workers was so tired of picking squash that on the last day of the harvest he wrote a poem, ‘Ode to a Crookneck Squash.’ ”

“We All Make Different Choices in Life”

When Lester was growing up in Waterford, farming was a way of life. Today he drives around Loudoun County in his beat-up truck and he says he is often run off the road by moms speeding by in big SUVs. He avoids going to Leesburg altogether—he’s turned off by the pace and how much people talk about material things. “There are times when I wonder, ‘Why don’t I have this or that?’ ” says O’Neal. “Then I remind

myself that we all make different choices in life.”

They feel most appreciated when they arrive in the city for market. “We’re definitely given rock-star status,” says Lester. “They see our two-year-old son, that we’re young and we have all this amazing food around us.”

He sees a spark of envy in customers’ eyes and hears it in their questions. Many ask, “How are you doing it?” Sometimes he’ll run into customers at a coffee shop, and they’ll want to shake his hand, ask how the farm’s doing. “We’re breaking through all of these class structures when we go to market,” he says. “Everyone is there looking to talk to the farmers.”

Lester and O’Neal develop relationships with their customers, and they’re stung if they see a regular shopping at another stand. They’ll wonder if something didn’t taste good the week before. More often, they revel in watching the life cycle of food—knowing that things picked on their farm the day before will soon grace the plates of Washingtonians.

“There are few things in this world that are as intimate as eating,” says O’Neal. “This is a chance to share something sacred."

This article is from the June 2008 issue of The Washingtonian. For more articles from the issue, click here.