Farmers’ Markets: A Green Revolution

September 06, 2010

Farmers’ Market concepts are growing faster than weeds across the country.

Farmers’ Market concepts are growing faster than weeds across the country. The U.S. Dept. of Agriculture figures showing the number of Farmers Markets at 6,100 plus, up 16 percent since 2009, meaning more than 850 have opened just this past year. 

The growth is due to two phenomenons. The first is the demand for locally sourced product, which, in turn, fed the second change which is the evolution of the Farmers’ Market itself. And it doesn’t hurt that the USDA is now spending roughly $5 million a year as part of its new Farmers Market Promotion Program. ??Farmers markets have taken root in cities across the nation, a trend which illustrates The Lempert Reports calling for the end of ‘local’ in 2011 and the rise of the Farmer. For decades we've been hearing about the death of the family farm, now farmers markets and other forms of selling straight to customers are helping to keep farmers in business. 

The Madison, Wisconsin Dane County Farmers’ Market on the Square is the largest producer-only framers’ market in the country. All items are produced by the vendors behind the tables. A Saturday and Wednesday tradition, here you’ll find the season’s best bounty of vegetables, flowers, and specialty products from approximately 300 vendors throughout the year. 

Market Manager Larry Johnson believes the growth of farmers’ markets is just beginning. 

“In our county alone, we have 12 to 15 other farmers markets and we don’t see them as competing against us – we’re all fighting for great local products,” he told The Lempert Report. 

The market itself has evolved for both the farmer and consumer. Consumers are able to find smaller melons (easier to tote about) and discovering more exotic cuts of meat such as emu, bison, and ostrich – additions to the market in the past 10 years. And while traditional market goers did their own canning, Johnson said those canning demands have been replaced by farmers themselves selling preserved crops.

“Our vendors certainly are creative, they are extending the season and we are a year-round market. They are using hoop houses and green houses adding value by preserving products - making vegetables into salsa for example. Finding ways to extend the season is important,” Johnson said. “Up here in Wisconsin we have some of our best spinach coming out of hoop houses during the winter months - the freeze and thaw cycle makes it sweeter.”

Most farmers who participate in the Dane County market also work with Madison’s supermarket and restaurant trade, supplying produce, meat, cheese, and fish to area retailers. 

“Our individual vendors have partnerships with supermarkets – there are at least three I can think of off the top of my head and those include high-end grocery stores as well as big box groceries,” Johnson said.

Another evolution are pilot programs allowing farmers markets to accept government benefits broadening healthy food choices to lower income Americans. Johnson said they’ve accepted WIC for years, recently signing on to the new government EBT farmers’ market project with a Central Point of Sale (POS) Device to sell market scrip to customers, who can then shop in the market with the scrip.

In Washington, D.C., food stamp recipients who visit three select markets during the summer can make up to a $10 charge on their EBT cards, and get twice the value of their charge in tokens to buy food at the market.