By Leslie Lee III
To catch a glimpse of what makes a farmers market shopping experience different than buying from big box grocery stores, chat with Westmoreland Produce’s Christina Medina. Each weekend, she delivers two varieties of fresh butter lettuce to shoppers at the Leesburg Farmers Market from a farm about two hours south.
“These were picked yesterday,” she said during Saturday’s market. “You never know when or where produce in a supermarket was grown.”
It’s farmers market season in Loudoun, which means the best of local agriculture is on display and ready for purchase at 10 locations around the county.
As the demand for local, fresh produce has grown, so has the number of markets and the markets’ offerings. Once the place to go for fruits, vegetables and meat, now farmers markets sell everything from kimchi to wine to scented soaps—all produced by small business owners in or near Loudoun County.
“In the early days, to be allowed in as a vender, you had to sell a farm-based product that you grew yourself. It was hard to get bakeries to be allowed in,” said Chris Hatch, a board member of the Loudoun Valley Homegrown Markets Cooperative. “We have become a little bit more diversified, but we try to stay true to this: Whatever you bring to the market, you’ve got to make it yourself.”
Offering a variety of goods seems to be the key to drawing more customers to the co-ops’ five seasonal markets, at One Loudoun, Brambleton, Cascades and two in Leesburg. For example, Leesburg-based Chase Your Tail Bakery—found at the Leesburg and Ashburn markets—offers freshly baked, human-grade pet treats like Pumpkin Nibbles, and Pumpkin Pretzels. In Brambleton, Reston-based Killer Tomato sells wood-fired Neapolitan-style pizzas, topped with San Marzano tomatoes. At the Cascades market, the folks from Georges Mill Farm near Lovettsville sell eight varieties of artisanal goat cheese.
And not only are the markets’ goods produced closer to home, the vendors are effusive about the quality of the products.
“We started our farm with the intention of selling in a farmers market,” said Georges Mill Farm co-owner Molly Kroiz. “Most of us use much more responsible growing practices than the stuff that you would get at the grocery store. It’s just going to be better for you.”
“Our specialty is that we are a farm that uses no chemicals,” said Mark Wilkes of Honey Brook Farms in Culpeper. “We don’t use any pesticides, herbicides, or fungicides. We don’t use any GMOs, plants, seeds, feeds, or anything. We are beyond organic.”
Loudoun’s markets also aim to build relationships among the shoppers, the farmers and the food: dogs are usually welcome, there are special events like farm visits and cooking classes, and kids are encouraged to come and pick out their own vegetables. The Leesburg and Cascades markets accept SNAP benefits, formally known as food stamps, and families that use them can get a $10 bonus, which can mean up to $30 of credit for fresh food each week.
In Ashburn, the Willowsford community is built around its farm, according to its vice president for marketing Stacy Kessinger. And the farm’s produce travels just around the corner to be sold in the Willowsford Farm Stand, open six days a week in the summer months.
“We’re the only community in the area where you can interact and speak with the people growing your food for you,” she said. “It’s fantastic for children to be able to pick something, taste it, and experience it, and understand where it comes from.”
Customers can buy Willowsford goods à la carte at the farm stand, or purchase a CSA—Community Supported Agriculture—share, and receive a regular selection of seasonal goods. The farm stand is open to the public, including non-Willowsford residents.
“The farm is supported by our residents and the greater Loudoun community as well. When we first opened we did 50 CSA shares, but this year we did 250. We hope to be able to offer 500,” Kessinger said. “A large part of what Willowsford is about is the food and the connection that that brings to homes. Without having the farm on the property we wouldn’t be able to do that.”
Whether browsing products from mainstay vendors like Sterling-based Becky’s Pastries, or perusing ones from the newcomers at Misty Meadow Farm Creamery in Smithsburg, MD, shoppers at the farmers markets get the rare opportunity to know exactly where their food comes from and meet the people who produce it.
“The most important thing is to make sure you know your farmer,” said Wilkes, with Honey Brook Farms. “Ask the questions, talk to the farmer, and get to know their business. Make sure you’re comfortable with their practices. If we all start taking that responsibility we can turn our food culture around and maybe our children and grandchildren can have healthier food.”
Shopping the farmers markets can be about more than getting good food, according to Hatch.
“Years ago, Virginia Tech did a study and calculated that if every family shopped at a farmers market and spent at least $10 a week, it would add over 55 million to the state’s economy,” he said. “It’s also an indirect way of keeping the scenery in Loudoun as green as possible by supporting local farmers.”
Wilkes hopes the markets go even further, and inspire Loudoun’s next generation of farmers. “My father moved to Loudoun and started a farm on Jan.1, 1950. At one time Loudoun County was the top orchard grass-producing county in the nation. Now, that has moved to Oregon,” he said. “With more people making wine, growing grains, and starting craft breweries, we need people to come in to the agricultural industry.”
Kroiz, who left her job as a scientist to start Georges Mill Farm, sees the markets as essential to Loudoun’s agricultural future.
“It’s really because of people shopping at markets that we’re able to have an agricultural community in Loudoun County,” she said. “It’s supporting local families that are working really hard to make food for their community—and it’s better for you.”