The Montgomery Cooperative Farm Women’s Market in downtown Bethesda is bustling during Wednesday’s lunch hour; a mixture of aromas fills the air. One customer examines fresh-off-the-vine strawberries; an elegantly-dressed woman returns her empty milk bottle for a refill; a couple departs holding a bouquet of scarlet zinnias; high school boys roam the aisles chewing ginger cookies. Above the cheerful din, attentive vendors exchange pleasantries with their patrons.
Marylander’s appreciation for fresh, local produce and handmade crafts helps to explain why the Farm Women’s Market has thrived for more than 75 years. The treasures inside this old wooden building are part of the attraction, but most customers cite personal service as their top reason for patronizing the Market.
Nancy Descalzi, of nearby Chevy Chase, orders a heaping box of delicacies from Chef Ali Tombul, owner of Cankandar Catering. Descalzi says, “I always come here. I like supporting the community, and they have more natural and organic products. It reminds me of European shopping—where you shop for the day.” Tombul spoons up tangy stuffed peppers for Descalzi. A former embassy chef, Tombul retired from serving dignitaries to sell Turkish cuisine directly to his customers. His savory potato salad, sprinkled with green onions and red peppers, is not the ubiquitous version found in grocery stores. Tombul piles another customer’s plate with heaping portions of a dozen appetizers; his warmth is typical of the merchants at the Market who sell their wares three days each week–Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays–twelve months each year.
There is always a waiting list to join this exclusive group of 22 farmers, chefs and artists nestled inside the Market’s historic building beneath a canyon of high-rises in downtown Bethesda.
Female Owned and Operated
The Farm Women’s Market was founded in 1932, when the Great Depression forced Montgomery County farm women to find ways to supplement their families’ incomes by selling products directly to customers. The decline in farm prices, and a devastating drought, drew these women together to start a farmers market completely run by women. They selected the fringes of Washington DC, in the growing village of Bethesda, to open their doors. After working in storefronts and tents for six months, the women moved into the newly erected clapboard building surrounded by sycamore trees. By 1935, the women raised enough capital to buy this building that they still use today.
Customers have shopped at the Market for decades. “I remember visiting in the late 1940’s with my mother. It was pretty neat. I grew up in Bethesda, and we’d go there to buy vegetables. There were no tall buildings–just the Market and post office are left,” reminisces Gerry Johnston, a Bethesda resident.
For the last 30 years, Barbara Johnson has served as President of the Market. She started working there in 1960, beside her mother-in-law, Margaret, one of the Market’s first vendors. They sold home-baked breads, cookies and pies. Back then, every woman dressed completely in white, which was the custom during the early years. After her mother-in-law passed away, Barbara took over the stand. It’s a tradition to pass your stand on to future generations.
To add variety and offer more space to interested vendors, Johnson and her board members opened an outdoor flea market on the grounds of the Market—today there are as many as 75 vendors selling everything from pet attire to furniture. Johnson has overseen other changes at the Market. When she first started there, only women could own a stall and work at the counters, plus they were required to wear white dresses, white gloves and hairnets. In 1958, men were first allowed to work in the Market, and uniforms are no longer required.
Two longtime vendors, Gene Easton and his wife Nellie, own the Windy Hill Farm in Damascus. The family opened their stall in 1935. “My grandfather helped unload the truck and set up the stand, but then all the men were shooed outside,” explains Gene Easton. “There weren’t many health department regulations at the time. You put your rabbits, pigeons, chickens in a big pan of ice.” His grandmother, Mamie Easton, was one of the founders and wanted to “make extra money like the rest of them that started this thing.” Gene Easton shows off a newspaper clipping of a group visiting from India in the 1950’s. A Market run only by women was such a sensation that visitors from around the globe came to observe its operation.
Local Food is King
Board member Ray Renn inherited his stall from family, who started selling farm goods in 1944. “I was born here. Of course I wasn’t pulling as many shifts back then,” he jokes. Renn points to a black-and-white photo of a young boy standing on tip-toes behind a glass counter in the Market. “Back then we sold chickens, eggs and butter from our cows.” Today he has an expansive choice of fresh produce and herbs. Across the Market, fellow board member John Paul sells seasonal wreaths and organic fruits from his orchard. He says there is a cordial and supportive relationship among the vendors. “We’re like family—each with different ways of presenting things. Customers come for the variety, but in today’s economy, it takes longer to sell things. Still, it’s pretty good. Local food is king.”
Carol Carrier, perched behind an overflowing stand of flowers and plants, has worked at the Market for 26 years. Childhood sweethearts, Carrier and her husband bought a farm and applied for a stall. Carrier’s children, now grown, have always helped out. When asked how the Market has changed, Carrier answers, “In some ways not at all, and in some ways, the customers are more sophisticated. I’ve developed some longstanding friendships. They come, order their food, get their flowers. They’ll say ‘I remember when your son was a baby!’ He’s married now!” Carrier thinks her customers want to support small, local businesses like hers. “People actually seem to care where their money goes. It makes me feel sorry for Target or Walmart,” she grins.
Almost every Wednesday and Friday, two young office workers, Andrew Gall and Marianne Drowne, come to the Market for lunch. “It’s great food and relatively inexpensive,” says Gall, as vendor Peggy Zoulas hands him piping hot moussaka and walnut honey cake. “I want to support the local farmers, and I really like the atmosphere,” he enthuses. Drowne agrees, smiling at Zoulas, “I’m a big fan of her Greek food, and it’s really nice to see a friendly face.” The two find their co-workers, all clutching packages they wander back to the high rise across the street.
The Bethesda Farm Women’s Market on 7155 Wisconsin Avenue between Willow and Leland Streets is open indoors 8 am to 5 pm Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays year-round. The outdoor flea market is open Market days and also on Sundays in October through April, weather permitting. Free public parking is available on weekends in the Montgomery County lot behind the Market, with an entrance on Leland.
Freelance writer and photographer specializing in vivid, deeply reported stories about food, travel and family.