Almost $1.5 billion changed hands at farmers' markets across the United States in 2010. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the number of markets rose by 16 percent last year--from 5,247 to 6,132. More than three million Americans regularly buy food from the more than 60,000 farmers who sell at these markets each year.
Even though I'm a big fan of this kind of grocery shopping, I was pretty surprised by those numbers. This isn't the result of some multi-million dollar corporate advertising campaign. Farmers' markets succeed because more and more Americans prefer to eat food that's fresh, grown locally, and bought directly from the farmer who grew or produced it. Instead of popping open a can or grabbing something from a box, you can get a real feel for your food and how it was created.
From Windham, Maine, to Hanalai, Hawaii, consumers are finding that going to farmers' markets isn't just for foodies or health fanatics. It's about better quality, tastier food, purchased in a location where you get a sense of community amidst the crisp greens, fresh meats, and artisan cheeses. You get to know where your food comes from and who produces it. You'll never get that knowledge in a big box store.
The markets benefit farmers as well as consumers. Many family farms depend on them financially. Farmers' markets breathe life into towns and cities, bringing new jobs and helping to keep money within the local economy .But now the farmers' markets across America are coming under fire, so market organizers must work together to establish clear definitions as to who and what they are. The very term "farmers' market" is being abused by non-farm businesses for competitive advantage, undermining the integrity and trust the farmers' market movement has been built up over the years.
Recently, two major retail chains in the Northwest independently posted store banners, advertisements, and shop displays of tomatoes, corn, and other fresh items said to come from "farmers' markets." Their actions fortunately drew sharp criticism in the media, and their efforts were soon deflated. Two other grocery retail chains are using the words "farmers' market" in their company names. In addition, a group of southern California farmers' markets has been accused of protecting a vendor who allegedly has sold Mexican produce as "local."
To fight these kinds of abuses and deceptions, the Farmers Market Coalition is working to define the term "local," and to implement guidelines ensuring that farmers' markets consist principally of farms selling their own products directly to the public. Without clear definitions and effective regulation, farmers' markets will become yet another victim of the cynical big retailers and shortsighted fools who are only out to make a quick buck.
Andrew Gunther is program director for Animal Welfare Approved, a nonprofit certification program for farms raising their animals humanely on pasture or range.