SAN FRANCISCO — If it seems like farmers markets are popping up like weeds, it’s because they are. New data out from the U.S. Department of Agriculture show that more than 1,000 farmers markets have opened in the past year, up 17% from 2010.
These markets allow farmers to sell their produce directly to consumers and often bring fresh fruits and vegetables into neighborhoods that lacked them.
There could be even more than the 7,000-plus on USDA’s list, says agriculture Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan. The USDA’s list is compiled as part of a voluntary, self-reporting system by the Agricultural Marketing Service. It used information from farmers market managers collected April 18 through June 24, 2011.
USDA found that growth in farmers markets was biggest in states where they hadn’t been as popular before, with the two biggest being Alaska, up 46% and Texas, up 38%.
Farmers markets are also an important springboard for young farmers, Merrigan says. "They start selling locally; then they get known in the area."
That makes farmers markets especially important as the nation is on the threshold of a generational transfer, with 30% of farmers aged 65 and older. "We need to find strategies to bring in younger people, and that’s part of the strategy," she says.
Location is also key. If they’re easy to get to, people will come, says Erin Barnett, director of LocalHarvest.org, a national directory of farmers and farmers markets. Also product diversity, so it’s "not all cukes and tomatoes."
Some markets include baked goods, meats, eggs and even crafts, others are strictly fruits and vegetables. "All sorts of things have to come together for consumers to want to get out of bed on a Saturday morning to go to the market," Barnett says.
For many towns and even neighborhoods, the local farmers market is becoming the weekend square, where friends run into each other, there’s a musician playing, and it’s easy to find not only a snack for the kids but fruits and veggies for the week.
"It becomes part of the entertainment of the day. These markets are establishing themselves as part of our culture in ways that they didn’t used to be, and that bodes well for their continued growth," Barnett says.
San Francisco’s Glen Park neighborhood got a small 32-stall farmers market on May 15, run by the Pacific Coast Farmers’ Market Association. It’s become a kind of central square for the area, says Jennifer Waits.
"We’ve run into friends from local shops, our daughter’s classmates and neighbors there," Waits says.
Karen Goore says going there to shop only reinforces her sense of living in a little village inside a city. Just last week she ran into a neighborhood friend who told her about a great "new restaurant that hadn’t been reviewed yet. … My husband and I went the next night and had a lovely meal."
It’s those kinds of interactions that bring a value beyond just the fruits and veggies to farmers markets, Merrigan says. "People are looking for community."