Olney Farmers Market successfully overcomes a major change of location
OLNEY, Md. — In the 13 years she’s managed the Olney Farmers Market, Janet Terry and her community board have not only made a late season start possible, but they managed to overcome a major change of location – often a death knell for farmers markets.
As related by Jeremy Criss, manager for the Office of Agriculture at the Montgomery County Department of Economic Development, Terry “came in close to the end of the summer of 2006 and wanted to do a fall-only holiday market. I felt she was starting at the wrong time of year,” he continued, “and she was facing an uphill battle to find farmers who would want to participate since most are starting to pack it up at that time of year.”
Terry, however, decided to prove Criss wrong. “We started with eight vendors: a breakfast burrito maker, a couple of other food vendors, a few handmade artisan vendors, and three farmers from Virginia.” The last, she vetted through extensive conversations with their local extension agents.
That first fall-only holiday market opened in the parking lot of the Olney Town Center and garnered a surprisingly good response from the surrounding Olney community during those first few months. Terry and her board immediately built on that success and expanded into a bustling seasonal market the following year.
During that second full year, the shopping center’s owner decided to begin “extensive revitalization of the fronts of all the stores,” said Criss. “So, we had to move the market during those renovations.”
“We were trying to move it within a block of where it was,” he continued. “We certainly didn’t want to move it far from its original location because that’s the way to destroy it.”
“It was awful,” Terry recalled. “We were driving around to all these empty parking lots and nobody wanted us.”
Finally, Terry approached a contact on the board of Montgomery County Hospital, now MedStar Montgomery Hospital, about the possibility of using one of their overflow parking lots. “We had been in the process of becoming a 501(c)(3) organization and had fighting childhood obesity through providing fresh healthy foods as one of our missions.”
The hospital board immediately appreciated the Market’s desire to offer fresh and healthy eating options in addition to providing a weekly gathering venue for the community. It offered up the expansive shaded lawn area adjacent to its thrift shop, which also fronted Maryland Route 108, one of Olney’s primary thoroughfares.
Additionally, because the property was then zoned for only one annual event – the hospital’s annual picnic – the hospital arranged for an attorney who worked with Terry and the Market’s board to get approval of a modification of the property’s special exception use designation from the county council sitting as the Montgomery County Board of Appeals.
“Originally, they were just going to have the Market there while the Olney Town Center renovations were being done,” said Criss; however, it quickly became obvious to everyone involved that the location was ideal.
“We moved here 11 years ago, and it’s been great,” said Terry. “Attendance has exploded. We used to put up signs everywhere those first years after we moved, but now we have only one banner along the front.”
“About 6 years ago, it really started picking up,” confirmed Liopaldo Beltran of Penn Farm in Colonial Beach, Virginia, one of the Market’s three original farms. “Certainly getting kicked out of a location obviously is not good because it takes time for people to get used to coming to the new location.”
In this instance, however, the new — now current — location has defied the odds. Citing the rainy weeks during 2018’s summer season, Beltran remarked, “It was bad, but people still came out and supported the Market. And, it’s hard to get people to support a market in the rain,” observed Beltran, whose family farm is a longtime and hardy participant in 10 farmers markets across the Delmarva region.
He then pointed to the location’s many amenities, including “great parking and large grounds with trees,” as part of the draw. Terry and Criss also highlighted the benefits of holding a farmers market on grass grounds versus an asphalt parking lot.
“They’re beautiful grounds,” said Terry. “And in the summer, yes, it’s hot, but we have shade and plentiful parking on two sides of the property.”
“A grassed area is so much better,” said Criss, “because you can stake your canopies in the ground in addition to weighing them down.” In contrast, Criss explained, “asphalt in the summer can get really hot, and canopies can become dangerous if the wind picks them up.”
The new grounds have also made it possible for the Market to move from just an extended seasonal market to a year-round market. Terry noted that every year they’ve been able to expand their offerings in some way.
“This year, we’re going to have musicians at the Winter Market to keep the music going year-round,” she said. The winter music offerings begin in earnest at their Annual Holiday Market on the afternoon of Sunday, Dec. 8, 2019, when, in addition to a visit from Santa on his firetruck, thanks to the Sandy Spring Volunteer Fire Company, the Market will feature over 75 vendors of “specialty food items and one-of-a-kind handmade jewelry and crafts,” as well as its usual cadre of producer-only farmers.
Indeed, Criss praised Terry’s continuing ability to successfully combine the farmers with the artisans. It was why, he explained, “the hospital stepping forward was a blessing because they had really built the Market up in that short period of time. It was like the stars were aligned.”