(Jan. 4) Mark Powell compares it to “speed dating.”

Only instead of eligible singles hoping to find Mr. or Mrs. Right before a bell rings and they shuffle off to another would-be mate, the players in this game are Maryland growers and buyers of fresh fruits and vegetables.

For several years now, the Maryland Department of Agriculture has hosted networking events for growers of sweet corn, apples, watermelons, tomatoes and other locally grown produce and the retail and foodservice buyers they hope to turn into customers.

Powell, the department’s chief of marketing and agricultural development, expects about 100 growers and 100 buyers for this year’s meet-and-greets, set for late January and mid-February.

Given the increasing number of participants, this year for the first time the meeting will be broken up into four meetings focused on three individual buyer types: retail, restaurants and other foodservice.

The success of the meetings can be traced to consumers’ increasing demand for locally grown fresh fruits and vegetables, Powell said.

“Farmers report to us that they’ve made contacts at this meeting that they would not have been able to otherwise make,” he said.

Buyers from Safeway, Whole Foods, Giant, Bon Appetit and other retail and foodservice companies have participated in the meetings, Powell said.

Maryland farmers produced about $79 million in fresh fruits and vegetables in 2006, Powell said. Top crops include sweet corn ($7.8 million), apples ($6.8 million), watermelons ($6.5 million), tomatoes ($6 million) and snap beans ($5 million).

Meetings are set for Jan. 22 in Owings Mills; Jan. 28 in Annapolis; and Feb. 18 in Easton. To register or for more information, contact Kate Mason at (410) 841-5779 or masonkb @mda.state.md.us.