By DANIELLE ULMAN, Capital News Service
WASHINGTON (November 16, 2007) - Six hundred turkeys awaited their destiny at Springfield Farm in Sparks, Md., on Wednesday.
Owner David Smith began counting and rounding up the birds to be plucked, cleaned, cooled and readied to become the centerpiece of their customers' Maryland-grown Thanksgiving dinners.
And Smith's farm was not the only local establishment to experience a flurry of activity from consumers looking for food with hometown flair, farmers markets and wineries statewide have seen an influx of traffic, too.
"It has a lot to do with reconnecting with their food," Smith said. "I like to say it puts a face on their food."
That's why farmers, vintners and experts are betting that when Marylanders sit down for Thanksgiving dinner this year, the cuisine will have a decidedly local flavor.
"If I get my food from California, then it takes a lot of fuel to get it," said Dale Johnson, farm management specialist for the University of Maryland, College Park.
"If I get my food locally, maybe I can reduce my carbon footprint," he said. "It's decreasing global warming through your diet."
Food that has not traveled cross-country is often fresher, said Brenda Conti, a board member of the Anne Arundel County Farmers' Market.
"Instead of being picked weeks beforehand and sitting on shelves or sitting in trucks (the produce is) picked when it's almost ripe," said Conti, owner of Herbal Touch, a company that makes jams, fruit butters and salves from market produce.
"The farmers try really hard not to take the prices to an outrageous price, but they have to go up a little bit to cover the costs," she said. "They can also keep it down because they're not going hundreds or thousands of miles to go to the market."
The Anne Arundel County Farmers' Market holds special sales the Wednesday before Thanksgiving at its Glen Burnie and Piney Orchard locations, and Conti said it's the busiest market day of the year.
Baltimore-area residents also rush the Baltimore Farmers Market on Saratoga Street the Sunday before Thanksgiving, said Tracy Baskerville, communications director for the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts, which runs the market.
"This Sunday is usually our biggest day of the farmer's market of the year," Baskerville said. "It's usually where most people come to get food for their Thanksgiving dinners."
Low prices and local products are both big draws, but customers also build relationships with farmers.
"Farmers can tell you the best way to cook something, or the best way to prepare something or how to best clean produce," she said. The advice is especially welcome "during Thanksgiving, when people are trying new recipes."
Local grocery stores like Giant also sell Maryland-grown produce, but spokesman Jamie Miller said the supermarket does not promote the food's origin.
Southern Marylanders enjoy the centuries-old stuffed ham recipe that is unique to region. Newcomers who don't know how to make it themselves can find prepared stuffed hams in locally-owned supermarkets such as McKays.
In a survey of Marylanders released this year, 76 percent of people said they were more likely to buy produce in grocery stores when it is identified as grown in Maryland. Researchers from the Schaefer Center for Public Policy at the University of Baltimore conducted the statewide survey of 810 randomly chosen state residents.
Farmers like Smith prefer to sell to individuals instead of grocery stores because it helps them stay afloat.
"That's the only way that small farms can survive is to do direct marketing," he said.
Statewide, customers will travel to pick up turkeys from Springfield Farm this weekend, but they also use the trip to stock up on other meats.
"Because it's raised locally it tastes better," he said. "It's vine-ripened if you will. All of the pork we're going to have this weekend, it was standing on the hoof on Tuesday."
Grapes are truly vine-ripened at 29 wineries throughout Maryland. The locally-grown label makes Maryland wines very popular at this time of year, said Kevin Atticks, Maryland Wineries Association director.
One grape specific to the East Coast, called Chambourcin, will pair well with Thanksgiving dinner—a feat, considering the variety of foods served, Atticks said.
"Besides Easter, Thanksgiving is one of the biggest wine holidays of the year," said Michael Cullison, sales manager at Fiore Winery in Pylesville. The winery holds a Black Friday sale after Thanksgiving where customers can sip, snack and shop for discounts on cases of wine.
The sale is always a big hit, but Cullison said he suspects the wines are so popular because people have pride in local products.
"People always like to talk about wine when they bring it to a meal," Cullison said. "A lot of people have guests coming in from out of town on the holidays, so having a local wine helps them bring out the local charm of the area."