Florence & The Farm Markets

Before there were iPhones with news and weather apps, there was my dad who was always clicking between The Weather Channel, The History Channel and Fox News. On days he knew I was at market, he’d pay particularly close attention to the weather. Occasionally I would get a telephone call warning me of a fast-moving storm in my direction, him going so far as to tell me once to pack up and get out of there NOW. Other times when the sky would turn black, I’d call him for an update to see which way the storm was tracking.

Now there are multiple weather reporting outlets who rely on experienced forecasters, super computers and satellite images that can be called up on demand, but predicting the weather is still a crap shoot. Any farmer will tell you that with no uncertainty. Trust me, we are all glued to our weather apps right now, especially farmers in Virginia.

Customers have already begun asking, “Will there be markets this weekend?” The answer: we don’t know…yet.

We know there won’t be markets the weekend after Thanksgiving and there won’t be a Bethesda market on October 14th due to the Bethesda Row Fine Arts Festival, but to say with any certainty in advance about weather-related cancellations is about as predictable as the weather itself.

“We intend to stay open rain or shine,” says Mitch Berliner, founder of Central Farm Markets.

However, due to the agreement with Montgomery County for the Bethesda location, the market must close if the county closes the school for weekend activities due to a weather event like a major snow storm or a direct hit from a hurricane. Similarly, the other locations (Pike, Westfield and Mosaic) will cancel markets only when weather conditions such as ice becomes dangerous to patrons and vendors.

Ice won’t be an issue this weekend, but the remnants of Florence, depending on where it makes landfall, may result in conditions – high winds and rain – that necessitate closures. Sure, vendors go without tents on breezy days, but tent weights only work so well before either the frame collapses from the sustained stress or a strong gust whips the entire structure into the air (weights included) and plunks it down on shoppers, on vehicles, on other vendors’ tents. Over the years I’ve witnessed several tent wrecks due to high winds. In an instant there were injured people, broken windshields, damaged products and destroyed tents.

If there is rain coupled with extremely high winds, that’s when it makes sense to pull the plug. According to the Capital Weather Gang, “based on the best available computer model forecasts, the storm’s extreme rainfall is likely to remain south of Washington.” That does not mean the region will not experience the effects of Florence as their forecast added, “There is still some chance that the region will endure disruptive rain and wind from the storm.”

Chances…

Some vendors travel over two hours to and from Central Farm Markets. That means that the producers traveling from the south are much more likely to be impacted by Hurricane Florence. Westmoreland Produce, located in Virginia between the Rappahannock and Potomac Rivers has chosen to err on the side of caution and will not be attending markets this weekend. Other vendors located closer to the estimated path of the hurricane are weighing their options as well. It’s not that vendors want to skip a market due to inclement weather. After all, we must work in all types of conditions to get the food to our customers.

Experience has taught us that picking and loading during dangerous storms is an unwise choice, that even though we are loaded and rolling flooded roads, downed trees and power lines can thwart our efforts. With supersaturated ground from all the recent rains, a blast of high winds can quickly bring down trees and poles. When state governors and the District mayor all declare states of emergency ahead of a major storm, we give pause and consider our trek into the city.

Other times we take a chance on an ugly forecast, standing for hours in the first bone-chilling rain of the season such as last week and are rewarded with patrons showing up in full support and colorful rain gear.

Yes, this still doesn’t answer the question will there be markets this weekend.

“We will wait until Friday IF we are to call off the markets, but at this point we intend to go forward,” says Mitch Berliner.

Here’s how you can stay on top of how Hurricane Florence will impact all the Central Farm Markets.

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Another New Year

One of the things I love the most about the ethnic, cultural and religious diversity of urban farmers markets is the multitude of New Year celebrations. And you know what that means – feasting! It doesn’t matter where you’re from or what you believe, food is central to practically every holiday. After many seasons of selling at farmers markets, I’m starting to get the hang of all the holidays enough to plan on the special requests for foods associated with each one, my lessons far better (and flavorful) than any college cultural geography course.

While the global population bases day-to-day living with the Gregorian calendar, many of the cultural and religious holidays follow lunar calendars leading to multiple “new year” celebrations that occur on dates other than January 1st.

I start out by wishing customers a happy new year on the first day of January. In my tribe, we opt for pork and sauerkraut for good luck. Approximately a month later, my Chinese, Vietnamese and Korean customers following their lunisolar calendar prepare for spring celebrations, aka Chinese New Year for which I have been on the receiving end of awesome pork dumplings.

I learned about the Mongolian New Year when customers special ordered a sheep’s head and stomach along with assorted offal a few weeks ahead of their celebration. Their new year occurs on the first day of the traditional Mongolian lunisolar calendar which denotes the new year as the new moon two months after the winter solstice. They were kind enough to bring me a small container of leftovers to taste. It was quite good, but the neighbors’ at their condo didn’t appreciate the aroma which was quite different from American norms.

In March, the Persian New Year brings a new set of flavors – dolmeh – which are grape leaves filled with ground lamb and ethereally sweet baklava, another tradition to which I look forward.

Rolling into September, the requests for brisket begin which means Rosh Hashana is on the horizon. My self-appointed Bubbe has educated me on the culinary points of Judaism over the years, leading me to grow a large patch of horseradish for Passover and package individual shanks for the Seder plate.

Several years ago, a young man asked for a ram’s horn to make his own shofar. I had to explain that the breed of sheep I raise don’t have horns. As disappointed as he was, maybe I should have substituted a goat horn, of which I have plenty.

Digging into the history of Rosh Hashana, again I have found another celebration deeply rooted in agriculture. In the modern world, we tend to forget how many traditions have emerged from 5779 years of agrarian cycles. This is when new fruits, such as apples and pomegranates are coming into season, and honey is plentiful.

Also observed at the new moon this month is the Islamic New Year. Raʼs al-Sanah is a low-key event after Eid-ul-Fitr and Eid-ul-Adha that is more of a cultural celebration that includes traditional meals based upon seasonal ingredients.

After this month, there’s still one more New Year to celebrate – Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights which celebrates new beginnings, the triumph of good over evil and light over darkness. It is also when goat meat is traditionally served. That’s a new year to which I can totally relate.

My customers at Central Farm Markets sometimes ask which holidays I celebrate. As a farmer who feeds people from all walks of life, I gleefully smile and tell them I celebrate them all.

The End of Summer…Unofficially

Triple-digit heat indexes for days this week, yet signs of autumn’s arrival are on the horizon.

Kids going back to school, whites and seersucker get closeted until Memorial Day, colorful mums taking the place of sunflowers and pumpkin spiced everything is already everywhere – yes, it’s Labor Day weekend. However, on the farm, summer is full steam ahead until September 22nd when the fall equinox officially shifts the seasons’ gear.

August and September still constitute summer when field-grown produce is peaking. These are your heat lovers, the ones that turn sunshine into sugars – sweet corn, stone fruit and melons. Other summertime crops like okra, peppers, tomatoes, tender squashes (aka: summer squash) and eggplants are overflowing.

Despite the oppressive heat and humidity, farmers can see the waning season and if you pay close attention to what’s disappearing and showing up at market from week-to-week, so can you.

Seasonality

Although farmers live by the weather report, at times hour-by-hour, the growth cycles of our products are the tell-all of seasons. We know with a fair degree of accuracy how long it takes for individual products to mature depending on environmental conditions. Greenhouse technologies, growing practices such as row covers and storage innovations like nitrogen chambers can extend the availability of many fruits and vegetables to practically year-round.

Dishing the Dirt has tried to convey the environmental impacts on your food choices from a late spring to a wet summer, as opposed to the artificial year-round availability created by the modern grocery industry.

When the first killing frost hits – anywhere from late September to early November, hot weather loving field-grown products are over until next year. This is when green tomato lovers will find fruits that were picked prior to frost to squeeze every last bit of income out of the patch before pulling the vines for good. There’s fried green tomatoes, tomato relish, pickled tomatoes, green tomato pie…the list goes on.

The Up Side of Fall

Not all produce is damaged by the cooler temperatures, including frost. Some fruits and vegetables are better after exposure to frost. These plants, such as leeks, beets, carrots, parsnips, kales, Brussels sprouts, chards, turnips and rutabagas transform their starches into sucrose – a natural form of anti-freeze – which is basically sugar. Similarly, some apples are harvested only after a frost, especially those for making cider. This is what you have to look forward to in the coming months.

Meat, too

Customers don’t always think of animal products – meat, milk, eggs, even honey – as seasonal, but they are. Try buying a fresh, local, pasture-raised chicken from December through April. Not going to happen.

Laying hens’ egg production is directly tied to amount of light during the day. Shorter days mean fewer eggs. Hens can be “tricked” daily by putting a light in the hen-house as 14-16 hours of light is needed to maintain peak production. Hens will tell you the days are getting shorter without ever making a peep. That’s why there isn’t an egg to be found at winter markets after 11 am as even with lighting there is a decline in production.

As fresh poultry season ends with the year, red meat season is ramping up as farmers harvest their flocks and herds to provide the much sought-after calories customers crave in colder weather. Cooking a roast all day right now seems outright ludicrous but give it a month and that’s what everyone will start asking for. Whether or not customers realize it, buying habits are also seasonal. Currently, no one is asking for large roasts to slow-cook all day. Once the official start of fall arrives when the weather cools,  buying habits will also shift. Until then, it’s still burgers, sausages, chops, steaks and yes, chicken.

Happy Labor Day everyone.

Tomatoes – the taste of summer

There were obviously no farmers on the Supreme Court in 1893 when it ruled that tomatoes (along with cucumbers, beans, peas, peppers, eggplant and squash) were vegetables even though botanically they are all fruits. Fruits are defined as seed-bearing structures that develop from the ovary of a flowering plant. But since they were consumed with a meal instead of for dessert, in the Nix v. Hedden ruling it was determined that tomatoes were to be taxed as a vegetable as at the time vegetable tariffs were much higher than those on fruits.

The Supreme Court is still arguing 125 years later about tariffs on agricultural goods. Anyone remember NAFTA? Yes, tariffs and tomatoes.

There’s as much history surrounding Solanum lycopersicum as there are varieties. Native to western South America, tomatoes were one of the first cultivated foods by early agrarian civilizations. In the 16th century when the Spanish colonized the Americas tomatoes were brought to Europe. Although tomato sauce has become synonymous with Italian food, their introduction can be pinpointed to October 31, 1548 when the Elder Medici received the first fruits imported into the country. Initially intended as an ornamental due to their color, over the next few hundred years regional varieties gained popularity for their intense flavors. Cruise around the markets today and you’ll see varieties that reflect their heritage such as the highly coveted San Marzano.

Tomatoes have spread throughout the world becoming flavor staples in numerous cuisines and are consumed cooked, raw, juiced and even made into wine. They can be eaten ripe or green.

Thanks to greenhouse technology, tomatoes have now become available at markets year-round. However, we are now in the midst of summer tomato season when the fruits grow juicier and tastier from the intense sun and warmth.

In addition to all the gorgeous tomatoes at the markets, there is no shortage of ideas about how to use them. The Washington Post’s Voraciously offered six different recipes for serving tomatoes, including a panzanella and savory cornbread cobbler. Online culinary site Food52’s idea for Hassleback tomatoes filled with fresh mozzarella and basil drizzled with pesto is an easy winner with all ingredients available from Central Farm Markets. Or if cooking isn’t your thing but you still want summer tomato goodness, Savagely Good (Mosaic) offers tomato pies made with ingredients sourced from fellow vendors.

My personal favorite – Insalata Caprese – is about as easy (and delicious) as summer gets. Made with slices of fresh tomato, fresh mozzarella cheese and fresh basil all drizzled with olive oil and topped with sea salt and fresh cracked pepper this dish takes less than five minutes to prepare. How’s that for fast food!

And of course, no summer would be complete without BLT sandwiches.

Share with Central Farm Markets what you’re doing with fresh tomatoes this summer on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Sharing the Bounty

Last year a popular national food magazine wrote an article about shopping at farmers markets that made my blood boil. The author suggested savvy shoppers go at the end of market to get great deals because farmers didn’t want to lug home unsold produce. Immediately I was at my computer and on the phone to both the writer and editor schooling them on what happens to much of the leftover produce and other perishable items unsold at the close of Central Farm Markets as well as just about every farmers market in which I’ve ever been involved over the last twenty years.

It is donated to people in need.

For six years, Central Farm Markets has worked with Manna Food Center to provide fresh fruits and vegetables to over 32,000 people in Montgomery County. As of last year, vendors provided over 300,000 pounds – that’s 150 tons – of food to be distributed to Manna’s clients.

How do we do it?

Prior to the close of market, folding crates provided by Manna are distributed to vendors who will have unsold perishable products. At Bethesda, the Bethesda Urban Partnership (BUP) graciously stores and delivers crates to vendors.

But that’s not the end of it.

Once vendors determine how much they will have left, Central Farm Markets purchases their products at wholesale using funds from Manna Food Center provided by grant money from Montgomery County, from market income and from donations made to the market on behalf of Manna Food Center. Shoppers may encounter young volunteers soliciting donations for Manna at the markets. There is also a donation box located at the information tent at each market. This is where the money goes. “It’s a win-win-win,” explained Mitch Berliner who founded Central Farm Markets along with his wife, Debra Moser. The hungry have access to fresh, local, healthy produce, the farmers get paid for their goods and the market patrons’ financial donations go twice as far. “All the donations go toward facilitating the collection of fresh produce,” said Berliner.

As the vendors are leaving the market locations, Manna’s truck is pulling in to load up what has been purchased for them. Lots of fresh greens, melons, corn-on-the-cob, and other assorted fruits and vegetables go on the truck. During winter markets when there aren’t as many vendors, the farmers themselves aggregate a donation and one will deliver it to Manna.

What is the Manna Food Center?

Started in 1983, Manna has been providing numerous services to Montgomery County residents, social service agencies and emergency organizations by distributing collected food. Manna Food Center points out that despite Montgomery County being one of the most affluent in the nation, one in three public school students receive free or discounted lunches. It is not only the working poor who must choose between healthy food and living costs (rent, transportation, etc.), but seniors, people fleeing domestic crises, and disabled residents.

As farmers markets have proliferated in Montgomery County, Jackie DeCarlo, Chief Executive Officer of Manna Food Center has seen the contributions of farm-to-food bank programs grow. “We serve over 3,000 people each month. With innovative programs like Community Food Rescue, we are able to increase access to tasty and healthy food. It has created an extra boost for sure,” said DeCarlo. Appreciative to Central Farm Markets for their participation in Manna’s mission, DeCarlo pointed out the intersect between farmers and food banks. “There’s never going to be the possibility of ending hunger without a fair, sustainable food system. If farmers are not successful even those who have ample resources will not have a stable access to food leaving those at-risk being even less able to be contributing members of the community.”

How can you help?

At the information tents at all Central Farm Markets is a donation box. 100% of money given is used to purchase food from CFM vendors that is directly given to Manna Food Center. For anyone who wants to volunteer, there are numerous opportunities both at the Gaithersburg warehouse and throughout the community. Click here to learn more.

At Mosaic Central Farm Market, produce gets donated to Food for Others.

The Price is Right

Last week I sat down with a young woman who was about to attend her first ever farmers market with meats she had raised as a fourth-generation farmer on her family farm. I had met her the previous year at my USDA processor. She lamented that for what she was making from selling her livestock at the local auction barn she’d never be able to pay her bills on farming alone. Turns out that she was raising her pigs on pasture, her cows were grass-fed, her chickens were free-ranging, she used no chemicals, hormones or antibiotics and she was still getting commodity meat prices, a pittance, at auction.

“You should go to market one week to see what it’s like,” suggested my butcher who is a co-packer for many small-scale farmers who sell direct through farmers markets and restaurants. A few weeks later, she was at Bethesda Central Farm Market with me to see what it was all about.

Her eyes grew wide with the number of vendors, the diversity of customers, the array of products and yes, the prices. For her, purchasing direct from the farm had always meant a steep discount. That may be so in remote, rural counties, but the clincher was when I explained that for many of the vendors farming was our sole source of income; we farmed for a living. The prices she was seeing were what they must be to list farming as an occupation; not a footnote, not a hobby.

I shared with her that when I first began going to farmers markets as a vendor, the most difficult aspect for me to overcome was having a customer complain about the prices of my products. It was devastating knowing how much investment of money as well as work went into raising the food I was trying to sell. I netted $11.15 from my very first market. In utter defeat, I limped back to my office job for several more years.

We went through the checklist of everything she needed. She handed me her product list and I whipped out my pen crossing off her prices, changing them to enough to cover her production costs and add in a profit. She gasped, “I can’t charge these prices!”

I explained that the changes I made reflected the true cost of production – not just the feed and processing. There are so many other factors that go into pricing products – insurances, market fees, tents, coolers, tables, signs, certifications, licenses, credit card transaction fees, vehicle costs – it adds up quickly.

Similarly, setting prices below production costs hurts other farmers with similar products. The fastest way to earn the ire of fellow vendors at a market is to undercut them by a wide margin. This usually results in harsh words and hurt feelings. Over the years, I’ve been on both sides of that table. As with everything else in life, it’s a learning experience.

According to the Farmers Market Coalition, “In 2017, American farmers receive only 14.8 cents of every dollar Americans spent on food. At farmers markets, farmers head home with upwards of 90 cents on the dollar.” Additionally, the USDA puts off-farm costs including marketing, processing, wholesaling, distribution and retailing (they forgot to mention profit) at more than 80 cents of every food dollar spent in the United States.

Currently, the United States is hemorrhaging small to mid-sized family dairy farms on a scale never seen. Why? The farms are simply not paid enough to cover the costs of production of their raw milk. When farmers choose to process, market and distribute their own dairy products, as Dishing the Dirt discussed earlier this year, the farmers are able to capture the majority of profits that otherwise would go to the processor, thus they are able to remain in business.

Business. I think one of the hardest reasons farmers have effectively pricing their products for direct-marketing is they don’t look at farming as a business first, but as a way of life, a passion, a calling. When working with young farmers, especially those who are the youngest of a multi-generation commodity farm, these are a few bullet points I give them when it comes to setting their prices.

  • Track ALL of your costs. From the cost per mile of operating a vehicle to the bags of ice needed each week, it’s the little things that add up. Understanding the true cost of getting your product to market is a must.
  • Know the comparative products’ prices both at the farmers market AND at local retailers.
  • Coming down in price is discretionary, going up is not.

This past spring a customer informed me that a local retailer had leg-of-lamb on sale for the holidays. As part of my regular reconnaissance I had been to that particular store the week prior. Yes, the leg was on sale, but the price of whole racks was double what mine was. “There’s only so much profit to be made from an animal,” I explained. In the commodity arena, it boils down to quantity versus quality.

The buzzword that has been bandied about for the last twenty years has been sustainability. Yes, there are many aspects to sustainability in agriculture such as soil health, conservation, animal welfare, genetic diversity, environmental responsibility, carbon sequestration, etc. What it really boils down to is customers who are willing to pay a fair price that keep the farmers in business.

After the success of my young farming friend’s first day at a new market, I foresee her forging a new path for her family’s farm so her infant son can grow up to be a fifth-generation farmer.


Sandra will not be at Bethesda Central this Sunday but will return next week.

When Bugs are a Good Thing

Insects and Imperfections

Last week at one of the markets an irate customer wanted to return lettuce from one of the Certified Organic vendors because they had found larvae in it. It could have been a grub or a caterpillar. Good thing it wasn’t me fielding their ire or I would have told them they were lucky they weren’t charged for the added protein.

Seriously.

Here at Dishing the Dirt we’ve been talking about the challenges of Certified Organic produce production and the weather this last month. Today we’re going to put both topics together to drive home the point of how much weather impacts production.

Yes, lots of rain brings planting, growing and harvest challenges for all farmers and producers, including those of us who raise livestock. The rains and humidity increase incidences of pests and fungus.

Think about those two words, pests and fungus.

Why do people buy Certified Organic foods? Could it be because they don’t want pesticides and fungicides sprayed on their food? I’ll try to make this as simple as possible. You can either have bugs, slugs, beetles, grubs, worms, larvae, flies, snails, and hoppers on your fruits and veggies or you can have chemicals. You can have mold, rust, spot, rot, blight and slime on your fruits and veggies or you can have chemicals.

One of the biggest pet peeves of anyone who grows sweet corn is when customers peel back the husks, find one small worm at the top of the cob just under the silk and then toss it aside in search of an ear without a worm. “They don’t want spray and they don’t want worms,” groused one farmer who threatened to quit growing sweet corn until posting a sign toward the end of the sweet corn season that read, “We guarantee that every ear of corn contains a worm. You don’t have to check.”

And about chemicals, before passing judgement, realize that not all non-certified producers use pesticides and fungicides and those who do may have no other choice. Not all “chemical” means of pest control are alike in their toxicity, persistence in the environment and range of action. Unlike conventional pesticides which are synthetically formulated to be chemically toxic causing death in the pests using nerve or stomach agents, biorational chemicals are less toxic. Examples include pheromones that lure pests away from produce to be caught in sticky traps. A pheromone is a chemical compound, but it is nontoxic, only confusing the pest instead of directly killing it. Other non-toxic chemicals include attractants, repellants and anti-feeding agents.

In addition to the insect explosion that is inevitable with wet, hot, humid weather, fungi go into overdrive. Notice how ripe fruits on your counter tend to grow fuzz and liquefy at lightning speed during the dog days of summer? This is the work of fungus among us and it is what farmers must deal with on a large-scale every growing season.

Customers have become accustomed to pristine produce, choosing only the most perfect specimens, passing over anything sporting a blemish. Farmers strive to offer the best they can, but sometimes nature has other plans. If you watch closely, you’ll see vendors constantly roving throughout their stands picking out the less-than-perfect and tossing it in a compost bin behind the tables. Unfortunately, that’s difficult to do when an entire crop, like mustard greens, all have tiny bites from Flea Beetles on each leaf.

Last Sunday I brought home a couple of eggplants, one that had been tag-teamed by pests & fungus and another with a cosmetic blemish. The bulb of garlic was struggling in the humidity to properly cure and would have most likely rotted if not used soon. Despite these imperfections, my baba ganoush was delicious.

Here are some tips for dealing with pests and fungus you may find on fruits and vegetables in wet, hot and humid weather.

  • Wash it. Even if you purchase Certified Organic, the produce still needs to be thoroughly rinsed to remove debris such as soil and {gasp} bugs. Rinsing and drying will also cut down on fungus during storage prior to consumption.
  • Refrigerate it. Warm temperatures and moisture are the perfect environment for eggs laid by pests to develop. In a chilled environment, the eggs will fail to develop.
  • Eat it. Don’t wait until Thursday or Friday to make that peach cobbler or caprese salad if the fruit was ripe on Saturday or Sunday when purchased.
  • Buy it. Fruits and vegetables blemished by environmental factors took the same amount of time, labor and resources to grow—probably more due to the battle against nature. Losing crops = losing income and farmers still need to pay their bills.

Rain. Rain.

After I left market on Sunday I swung by the Amtrak station in Rockville to collect a dear friend who had traveled from the small agricultural valley in southern California where I had lived for many years before returning east to farm. I was wet from tearing down and packing the stand. I had driven through flooded streets, water spraying so high from passing cars they caused a wet slap on my windshield with each one driving by. My mind was clicking through worst-case scenarios of what the deluge meant for me back at the farm – flooding in the barn, flooding in the lower pastures, erosion, mud, flies, foot rot.

Exiting her train, my friend’s first words were, “All this rain, it’s so wonderful. Everything is so green. You are so lucky!”

As we caught up on too many years gone by, she told me what fourteen years of drought has meant for her. The one that took away my breath – hay cost $18 a bale, more than four times the average cost in the mid-Atlantic region. “We had pastures for about a month this year,” she said. When there is no pasture, one must purchase hay. In comparison, I have pasture for nine, some years ten months out of the year. My perspective was quickly shifting about the impending week of storms.

The big shocker, when it rains her local farmers markets get canceled!

“You still had market today with the rain?” she asked, and I responded that markets are only shut down for hurricanes and single-digit temperatures although once there was a market right after a derecho. No one bought anything because everyone was out of power.

The down side.

A week of torrential rains can create havoc on a farm. At Spiral Path Farm all this water means the fields are too wet to safely plant, drive through, and harvest without harming the soil. Many summer crops, like melons and tomatoes, need it to be hot and dry to grow and ripen properly. “Think of a vine-ripe cantaloupe sitting in nine inches of water,” lamented Lucas Brownback.

At Two Acre Farm all the green beans and tomatoes needed to be replanted. Nicole Olson explained, “Moisture from all the rain-soaked in the beans themselves causing the beans to be rubbery and entire tomato plants simply rotted out of the ground.”

The up side.

For Lucas at Spiral Path, the plus side of the rains is there is no irrigating needed. I thought of my farming and ranching friends out west who have had to let entire orchards of citrus and avocados die because they could no longer afford the water needed to irrigate and livestock ranchers selling off entire herds due to lack to water. Drilling a new well into a depleted aquifer is futile.

When customers lament the rain, I remind them how critical it is, even if this week it seems to be too much of a good thing. Yes, there will be many crops impacted, but there is enough water to sustain future plantings. Other geographic regions both in the United States and throughout the globe experiencing severe droughts do not have this option and are instead saddled with economic losses, social changes and migrations of both people and animals.

I’ll take the rain.

Life Doesn’t Always Go as Planned

I should have been hitting the I-81/70 interchange right 6:30am on my way to Bethesda Central Farm Market, but at a stop sign several miles into the commute the Check Engine and Traction Control System lights came on. Nothing happened when I stepped on the accelerator. As a reformed geek, my immediate assessment was to first reboot. Restarting the engine turned off the Traction Control System light, but not Check Engine. An emergency call to my mechanic precipitated another call to AAA.

Vehicles can be repaired and replaced. I wasn’t worried as much about the van as I was my customers. An overwhelming guilt washed over me. Unloading and reloading into the bed of a truck would be difficult and time-consuming. All the coolers would be exposed to the blazing sun during the hottest part of the day on the drive home. I took a deep breath and accepted reality – I would not be going to market.

It happens to us all. The unexpected rears up and changes plans. As we’ve become a culture of availability where big box stores, franchises and chain stores have fail-safe work forces offering 24/7 service, occasionally this expectation spills over into farmers markets.

One of the favorite things customers do which I have come to appreciate over the years is they tell their vendors when they won’t be at market or when they are moving away.

“I’ll be gone for six weeks,” warned a regular. Sure enough when the seventh week rolled around he was back with his insulated bag and standard order.

Unlike the homogeneous (and boring) world of corporate retail, farmers markets are dynamic, ever-changing experiences. This is a more realistic view of a food system, especially agriculture. On a daily, seasonal and annual basis farmers must be flexible to accommodate everything the world throws at us while trying to get our products to the customers.

Breakdowns; it’s not a matter of if, but when.

In the early years of my agrarian endeavors, I always thought farmers spent a lot of time fixing stuff. Experience has taught me that if you’re fixing stuff, you’re farming. Tractors, implements, fences, watering systems, tables, tents and yes, vehicles all take a beating in this industry (sometimes the farmers, too). As much as we try to prevent such events through regular maintenance and mitigation, manure happens.

Many Central Farm Markets vendors travel the same arteries into the city. When a fellow farmer’s vehicle is broken down on the side of the road, one, two and even three other vendors have pulled over to help get them safely off the busy highway, to market or back to the farm. These are events few customers ever witness or hear about.

Trust me, we don’t want to break down, get injured, get sick or anything else that causes an unexpectedly missed market. Farmers with planned absences try to inform customers the week prior to not being at the market. The market staff does an excellent job at listing all vendors attending markets that week.

Breaking down on the way to market was stressful, but thanks to all the wonderful messages of concern from both customers and fellow vendors the frustration of the experience was significantly lessened.

Staying Sharp

With the purchase of meats, vegetables and fruits comes the task of preparation. What is the primary tool for such tasks?

The knife.

From paring to carving and every size and shape in between, slicing, dicing, boning and peeling all take their toll on a blade over time. Unless you know your way around a whetstone or sharpening steel, keeping an edge on frequently used knives means turning over your tools to a professional.

So, it made perfect sense for Central Farm Markets to include a mobile sharpening service as one of the markets’ regular vendors.

Robb Balfour, owner of Robb’s Edge Express, rotates through all four of the Central Farm Markets sharpening everything from scissors to scythes. “Kitchen knives are by far the most common item,” Robb said when asked about his work at the markets.

Most services can be performed in an hour with Robb’s mobile sharpening equipment. Simply drop off your knives, scissors and gardening tools like loppers and hedge shears with Robb and his wife, Keli, enjoy shopping at the market and pick up your tools on the way out. Some things, like chainsaw blades, circular saw blades and hand saws must be done at Robb’s workshop in Hagerstown, MD. They can be dropped off at the market and will be returned on his next trip.

Although Robb has only been with Central Farm Markets for four years, he’s been sharpening blades since 1961. He is certified by the National Beauty Tools Sharpeners Guild and regularly attends trade shows to stay up-to-date. In addition to the markets, Robb specializes in professional salon scissors, clippers and clipper blades. He also repairs Andis, Oster and Wahl clippers (I know there are horse and dog people who frequent the market who should know about this).

Robb is currently working with Shepherdstown University to offer a workshop on basic sharpening.

I asked Robb if he could tell people one thing to stop doing with their knives, what would it be? “Do not put knives in a dishwasher.” He explained that the humidity and moisture attack the edge which is very thin. “The edge gets pitted and etched.”

For those who put their knives in the dishwasher, here is Robb’s schedule so you can have your knives restored sharp enough to split a hare (or a chicken, or a tomato). Bring your blades wrapped in a towel, in a box or in a sheath for a proper sharpening.

Robb’s Edge Express Schedule for Central Farm Markets

Pike: 2nd Saturday
Westfield: 4th Saturday
Bethesda: 2nd & 4th Sunday
Mosaic: 1st & 3rd Sunday