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The Fresh Local Approach to Eating Healthy

by Arlene Karidis & photography by Turner Photography Studio

As technology improves, volume and variety are helping farmers return to the personal touch of days gone by.

July is a sweet corn and juicy tomato-lover’s dream come true in Washington County. The area’s combined 60-some farmers markets and standalone farm stands are brimming with them. But vendors bring out plenty more — some of it pretty new — with more to come.

Smithburg’s apple craze that faded is now back in the spotlight. One group that’s gone mobile with mini farmers markets is expanding its reach. And Hagerstown’s Community Depot has painted one of its Frederick Street buildings red, dressed it up like a barn, and will open a farmers market there late this summer.

Among the existing attractions are [Hagerstown] City Market, the Boonsboro Farmers Market, and Washington County Farmers Market. Here, you can find specialty items like French cheeses made from scratch, the legendary “Boonsboro cantaloupe,” and even dog biscuits made from goat cheese.

If you’re just looking for the basics — maybe plain ol’ green beans or a simple squash — you will find that too, though there are a slew of varieties of each one, and for some there are even varieties of the varieties.

While they are most known for their fresh berries, Litton’s Produce and Berries grows a dozen or so vegetable types. If you walk straight past the coffee and donut stand at the City Market you will see Litton’s roughly five metal tables set up in a square. By July and August, they’re peddling all kinds of watermelons, peppers, and eggplants, as well as cucumbers, pickles, and other produce.

The Sweet Spice of Variety

“We have four varieties of cantaloupe from late July into September, including the Boonsboro cantaloupe, which was big in the ’30s to ’50s, but people still ask for it,” says Donna Litton. “It’s for one or two people. If it’s nice and ripe, it’s good and sweet.” Among their variations, the French orange cantaloupe is the most popular though. “It’s like a gourmet cantaloupe. When I cut it open to try for the first time, I said, ‘Oh, it’s bad; it’s overripe.’ But I took a bite, and it was delicious. It’s really orange and a bit soft, but not mushy; just sweet with a very distinct taste,” says Donna.

The City Market is open on Saturdays year-round, while Washington County Farmers Market runs on Wednesdays from May 18 to Sept. 28. With about 12 vendors, the Washington County venue has moved a few times since its 1990 launch. Now farmers pitch their white

and blue tents in the Elks Club parking lot every hump day, selling meats, vegetables, local honey, and lotions and soaps made from goats’ milk. One vendor smokes pulled pork and spare ribs and grills cheese-stuffed hamburgers on the property.

In The Name Of Freshness

“It’s a producers’-only market, meaning vendors can’t buy from someone else and resell it. We want the freshest products,” says Rich Calimer, the market’s president.

“Scenic View Orchards (Rich’s business and a Washington County Market vendor) used to deliver to stores, and they kept things way too long for me. The difference in the taste of a local strawberry compared to one shipped from California or Florida is like night and day,” he says, adding that you can buy things you can’t find in grocery stores.

Three hundred or more people shop there in a day — mainly locals, some decades-long regulars. But some do venture out from Pennsylvania and Virginia for what they can’t get at home, like seckel pears, rhubarb — and in the fall, honey crisp apples.

Fifty years ago most families in and around Hagerstown had hogs and maybe a chicken or two in their backyard. All that’s gone now, says Leslie Hart, the Washington County agriculture business development specialist. “People went to work and it was easier to buy in grocery stores. Plus the stores had more variety than what you could grow in your yard,” she adds. “Over time

we lost that full-flavored taste you have when you pluck blueberries from a bush that morning and they’re on your dinner table that evening.”

Shifting Back To The Days Of Yore — With A Twist

Farmers are on a comeback, and it’s tied to technology. A tractor that simply pulled a plow decades ago has GPS now, enabling it to know when and where to apply fertilizer. And these days, it’s equipped to plant and harvest. “This means farmers can grow more varieties of produce faster, bigger, and in more challenging conditions. They can grow a thinner skin, which consumers like, especially on apples. And now dieticians consult with farmers to raise the highest quality animals,” says Leslie. In turn, there has been a resurgence of farm-fresh foods.

At the same time that the industry pushes technology, consumers are driving a movement to get back the personal touch of days gone by. “People in Washington County are interested in where their food comes from and how produce is grown and how animals are raised. Now you can go to farms and see how it’s done and can ask farmers questions,” Leslie says.

Caprikorn Farms sells various flavors and types of goat cheeses at its Gapland farm stand. The oldest goat cheese producer in Maryland, Caprikorn raises Saanen herds, known for high milk production; their herds rank among the nation’s top for product quality and quantity. They use that milk to make Gouda, cheddar, feta, chevre, and sharp, aged cheddar.

“The key to flavor and consistency is starting with quality milk,” says Caprikorn farm owner Alice Orzechowski, which is what she tells shoppers who want to know how the cheeses are made so creamy and rich. Though there are techniques involved beyond producing good milk. “First, we bring the milk up to the appropriate temperature to incubate the cheese culture. Then we process the cheese, which involves cutting the curd, draining the whey off, and pressing the cheese.”

Beyond the quality, a lot of people buy goat cheese because it’s considered healthy. “The goat’s milk used for cheese has about double the calcium and 30 percent less cholesterol than cow’s milk products. And a lot of people try it because they can’t digest cow’s milk, but find they can handle the goat cheese,” says Alice.

The chevre is among their most popular, which is a softer fresh goat cheese. Caprikorn’s chevre also comes in varieties like dill with garlic, and cranberry with horseradish. “Our new one is Chesapeake Bay, which tastes like Old Bay mixed with cheese,” she says.

Taking The Show On The Road

The nonprofit Seed of Life takes a produce-packed school bus on the road, stopping five days a week in low-income areas, senior communities, and food deserts with limited access to fresh food in Frederick and Carroll counties as well as Hagerstown. Fruits and vegetables in every color of the rainbow line bright red shelves mounted against the walls of the bus’s gutted interior.

People file on a few at a time to pick up discounted red chard, blueberries, and yellow squash among the roughly 50 produce types that come from local farmers and local distributors. There is also a nutritionist on board who talks to clients about how to prepare healthy meals. “We offer this program because when kids eat healthy they do better in school and function better in life from day to day. Plus, we hope to create a family dynamic where families who may have eaten a pack of ramen noodles on the run now cook together and sit down and eat a healthy meal together,” says Seed of Life founder Michael Dickson, who is known around town as Farmer Mike.

The program is in the process of expanding its services to include home deliveries to people who can afford to pay full price — though delivery is free. Farmer Mike is all about people doing good for each other. “We are working to create a symbiotic relationship between farmers and the community. A relationship where families buy local and support farmers’ businesses, while farmers support families and the economy by growing and providing healthy local food.”