In a dismal week for the U.S. economy featuring debt-ceiling drama in Washington and the threat of a double-dip recession on Wall Street, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) delivered some powerhouse statistics demonstrating the public's demand for healthy, organic food: The number of farmers markets in the country increased 17 percent in the last year. "There's a yearning for the 99 percent of Americans who are no longer connected to the farm to reconnect," Kathleen Merrigan, deputy secretary of the USDA, said
The timing is perfect — this week marks National Farmers Market Week — and comes on the heels of a new report finding that farmers markets could generate thousands of jobs in the U.S.
The 2011 USDA Farmer's Market Directory lists 7,175 farmers markets, and Merrigan says the number is probably even higher because some markets don't self-report. The states with the most markets include California, New York, Michigan, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Iowa, Wisconsin, North Carolina and Massachusetts. And, though not on the top 10 list, Alaskan farmers markets increased 46 percent over last year, and Texas, Colorado, and New Mexico were each up 38 percent. As an indication that shoppers are indeed searching for more local, organic food, Merrigan said more than 2 million people have searched the USDA Farmer's Market Directory so far in 2011.
"Farmers markets are just growing exponentially," said Merrigan, who highlighted farmers market innovations, particularly those that bring healthy produce to low-income areas. One such advancement is the increase in farmers markets allowing electronic benefit transfers (EBT), so people receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, formerly known as food stamps, can purchase fresh, healthy food at farmers markets. Many of these markets are moving into food deserts, areas without grocery stores that sell fresh produce and where the few stores that do sell fresh vegetables are bodegas and corner stores with a high mark-up. (Note: Many of the USDA programs that help boost farmers markets numbers and bring healthy food to people could be on the chopping block in the 2012 Farm Bill.)
Along with the USDA's new statistics, the nonprofit Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) released an report finding that farmers markets could be a much-needed antidote to high unemployment. Their economic analysis found that even modest public support for up to 500 farmers markets annually would create up to 13,500 jobs in a five-year window, bolstering local and regional food systems. "On the whole, farmers markets have seen exceptional growth, providing local communities with fresh food direct from the farm," says Jeffrey O'Hara, the author of the report and an economist with UCS's Food and Environment Program. "But our federal food policies are working against them." He adds that tens of thousands more new jobs could be created if the government would just divert a small fraction of the subsidies that are currently doled out to industrial farms to farmers markets.
What it means
Since the majority of farm subsidies go to industrial farming — USDA dished out nearly $13 billion for commodity-crop insurance and supplemental disaster assistance — the farmers market phenomenon has come about with relatively little government assistance. The irony here is that the U.S. is subsidizing a farming system that ultimately makes us sick and contributes to taxpayer-funded problems like obesity, flooding and hard-to-treat superbug infections linked to factory farming, all of which increase government spending even more.
Despite a grossly unlevel playing field, the number of farmers markets nationwide more than doubled between 2000 and 2010, and the Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that now more than 100,000 farms sell food directly to local consumers. As the group's recent report found, those farms need workers and people to help get their food to consumers.
So what is it about farmers markets? Why are people swarming to them? Merrigan believes it's the combination of a few things:
1. The desire to reconnect with farms.
2. The availability of fresh and unusual and heirloom products. (Merrigan referenced the delicious ugli heirloom tomato, one that doesn't ship well cross-country, so you won't likely find it in a grocery store.)
3. People's interest in community. Farmers markets aren't just about food, but also meeting your farmer, listening to local musicians and creating new relationships.
For farmers market tips and to find the market right for you, use these resources: