Farmers Market Wilting

Farmers Market Wilting

On last week's brutally hot Wednesday, Dan Imbody tried to sell some popcorn at the South Riding farmers market.

To say it wasn't exactly working might be an understatement.

On average, Imbody might sell 100 pounds of unpopped corn at one of the six Northern Virginia farmers markets Colonial Kettle Corn frequents.

In South Riding, he sells between 15 and 20 pounds.

"It's just exponentially worse than any market," he said. "No vendor turnout, no customer turnout."

Imbody did look lonely in his booth last week. Just six other vendors set up shop in the parking lot across from the town green in South Riding Ñ a marked difference from the 21 that opened the market, in its inaugural year, in May. A few customers trickled in, mostly gravitating toward the two fruit vendors. In a 15-minute span, Imbody sold one small bag of popcorn.

A couple slots over, Sessou Nsougan hawked his homemade breads. Becky's Market, based in Sterling, is run by Nsougan and his wife and named for their daughter.

As customers wandered up, Nsougan began his spiel, listing each of the fresh-baked loaves as he tapped them: banana, zucchini, jalape–o, garlic and cheese.

"Fresh, fresh," he said. "Home baked. You will love it."

"We're just looking," said the female half of a young couple with twin babies before pushing the stroller away.

But just a moment later, an older woman bought two loaves of her favorite. "I come every week," she said. "I know," Nsougan replied.

SOUTH RIDING said it wanted a farmers market.

Residents had approached program director Heidi Carlstedt about getting a market, but the planned community didn't have the population to support one until this year. Carlstedt conducted an unscientific poll on South Riding's Web site to determine what day residents would like to hold the market.

Friday won, but the county, which organizes five other markets, assigned them Wednesday.

Still, the first South Riding farmers market was well-attended by customers and vendors alike.

"They were very excited," Carlstedt said.

But interest dropped in the following weeks. The heat didn't help, and neither did the lack of produce in the spring.

"People's vision of a market is just chock full of herbs and vegetables, and that's just not the case in May," Carlstedt said.

Instead, the market featured vendors like Colonial Kettle, bakers, fresh flowers, chocolate, homemade dog biscuits.

Fruit and vegetables came later in the summer as harvests began. Apples and corn, late-summer produce, haven't yet appeared at markets.

"I think the people in South Riding might have had sort of unrealistic expectations of things being there like in the supermarket, and that's just not the case," said Warren Howell, the county's agricultural marketing manager.

Howell thinks his office may have miscalculated the South Riding demographic: young families, perhaps without as much disposable income, perhaps not familiar with the market experience.

The rural division of the county's economic development office assigns vendors to each of the county's six farmers markets. Because South Riding is full of new homes with bare yards, Howell thought flower and herb vendors would have brisk business.

They didn't.

"We suspect next year we'll probably change the mix of vendors there," he said.

HENRY CREEL bought peaches last week. He mused about why more residents didn't take advantage of the market.

"A lot of people forgot about it, and you have to remind them," he said.

The neighborhood proprietary has listed the market on its online calendar as well as in the South Riding magazine, but vendor Sandra Stickovitch has taken it a step further.

Stickovitch, the marketing manager of Chef Eloy's "Kickin" Salsa, has begun an e-mail mailing list to tell regular customers which vendors will be coming on a given week.

A regular in South Riding at several other markets, Stickovitch has watched other new Loudoun markets struggle and eventually flourish.

"People have to understand that this is the first year for the South Riding market," she said. "Markets need a little time to build up clientele."

On a good day, Stickovitch might sell 60 or 70 salsas, made by her Sterling-based father, Eloy. In South Riding, she doesn't even come close.

But she understands that regular customers aren't the only key to market success. So are regular vendors, and so she shows up to sell extra-extra-extra-spicy salsa, even when it's a hundred degrees outside with a storm coming.

"[Vendors] need to show up every week," she said. "I understand it's frustrating for vendors, but I'm a vendor too."

The number of vendors dropping out of the South Riding market worked to Deb Matthews' advantage.

Matthews makes homemade dog biscuits in a panoply of flavors Ñ apple spice, peanut butter ÑÊin her Leesburg-based company, Chase Your Tail.

In her first year looking for a farmers market space, Matthews couldn't get into the popular Leesburg site. So when an opening came up in South Riding, she grabbed it.

It turns out that South Riding residents love dogs, and their dogs love Chase Your Tail treats.

"It's worked really well for me," she said. "The folks are very nice. Lots of dog lovers, and that's what I count on."