County farmers’ market on the move again
CHARLOTTE HALL, Md. — Donna Sasscer recalls the less-than-ideal origins of the North St. Mary’s County Farmers’ Market nearly two decades ago.
It was several Amish growers set up on the shoulder of busy Route 5 near the Charlotte Hall Library. Cars pulled over to shop, causing congestion and safety concerns, and that wasn’t the worst problem.
After realizing the pacific Amish farmers were running vulnerable cash businesses, criminals robbed the market several times.
The county cleared trees and brush in the nearby library parking lot and moved the market there in 2006. Since then, the market — one of three run by the county — has built a popular following, generating about $1 million in yearly sales from 12 vendors from spring to fall.
Now, it’s creating traffic of its own, and county officials are moving it again, once and for all.
The county plans to relocate the farmers’ market less than a mile south to a new $1.8 million outdoor facility with a structure for fresh produce, fruit and flowers, and another for value-added products. With expanded parking, picnic tables, restrooms and a bike path to nearby Three Notch Trail, the site will be a vast improvement over the market’s cramped digs in the library parking lot, said Sasscer, agriculture and seafood manager for the county’s economic development department.
“Our long-term goal is that this becomes a year-long market,” she said. “Our hope is that it becomes more of a tourist destination as well.”
In many ways, it already is, said Scott Sanders, owner of Tobacco Barn Distillery, a St. Mary’s County operation in its third year.
Sanders’s operation grows the corn it uses to make bourbon — which it sells in stores throughout the state and at farmers’ markets like Charlotte Hall. Many of the popular market’s patrons come from Northern Virginia, Baltimore and other parts of Maryland, he said.
“It’s an outdoor market. It’s not commercialized. Most of the vendors are Amish. … It’s a pretty welcoming environment,” Sanders said. “I know the ZIP codes of where the credit cards come from, and they’re all from up north. It was shocking to me too.”
But its attractiveness to customers has become a problem. The library has grown frustrated over the last five years with its frequently packed parking lot, and in the summer, Saturday traffic can back up onto surrounding roads, Sasscer said.
“It really became a nightmare,” she said.
For $190,000, the county purchased 15 acres from a former Baptist church just a short distance away on Redstone Lane in 2017. Some surrounding residents were unhappy to learn about the relocation into their backyard but have since relented, Sasscer said.
The county was readying to move forward with the relocation until last year when the Southern Maryland Agricultural Development Commission announced it was offering a $1 million grant to build a much-need meat processing facility and agricultural center somewhere in the five-county region. St. Mary’s County’s economic development department saw an opportunity to expand their plans in the Charlotte Hall area and submitted a bid that folded the farmers’ market relocation into a larger project to lure the SMADC grant. They submitted one of two bids, which SMADC was evaluating last week.
The proposal from St. Mary’s County would spread the agricultural center across two separate and nearby locations, one being the 15-acre site on Redstone Lane with the relocated market. If the county wins the grant, it would also expand and enhance the value-added facility, which will include a commercial kitchen and meat and cheese cases, allowing new products to be sold, Sasscer said.
The meat processing facility would be built on another county-owned, 48-acre parcel at 37766 New Market Road. It would feature a certified cut-and-wrap facility with smoking and curing rooms, classroom and kitchen space for workshops and training, and a meat sales and custom butcher counter. A meat storage and support facility would include a loading dock that accepts large delivery trucks and vans. The entire project is about 3 miles from a new Amish slaughterhouse set to receive USDA certification this month, said Chris Kaselemis, the county’s economic development director.
“Our overall economic improvement strategy includes agriculture,” he said told The Delmarva Farmer last week. “Every day we’re helping local farmers to stay in business and stay profitable and help local farms.”
The county is moving forward with the market relocation whether it wins the grant or not, Sasscer said. Once it’s reestablished, she said she believes yearly revenue at the new market could double within five years.
“We want it to be a place that others will want to come to buy fresh local produce and experience St. Mary’s County,” she said.
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