Though the idea of a place where farmers can sell their wares is hardly revolutionary, the local farmers’ market has seen a boom that’s raised it from hipster/yuppie food trend to integral part of the urban and suburban cityscape. Twenty years ago, a mere 1,755 farmers’ markets were scattered across the country. Since then farmers' markets have seen fruitful growth. On Saturday, USDA came out with its latest round of stats and revealed that over the past five years the number of farmers’ markets in the United States has jumped from 4,685 in 2008 to 8,268 in 2014; that’s a 76 percent hike.
California and New York top the list with 764 and 638 markets each, followed closely by Michigan, Ohio and Illinois. The southern states saw the greatest increase in farmers' markets with Tennessee, Louisiana and Texas seeing the highest percent increase in the last year.
There’s also been a boom in business. From 1997 to 2007, direct sales from farmers to consumers tripled and grew twice as fast as total agricultural sales. This year the USDA is also adding databases to their farmers’ market site to include online directories connect consumers to farms that do deliveries during harvest seasons and/or maintain markets on their properties.
Though they began as a morning, often weekend trend, farmers’ markets at unorthodox locations and times are becoming a thing, too. Some markets sell exclusively at night, while others mine a lack of competition in the winter off-season. Some have even ventured onto the Internet, allowing customers to order local crops and artisanal foods online.
Some think that the farmers’ market boom may be leveling off. "There's only so many markets that you can stuff into an area. So there began to be in these key urban markets a shortage of producers to sell,” Larry Lev, an economist at Oregon State University, told U.S. News. As markets become more popular, it’s harder for new ones to open because an urban business ecosystem can only support so many inhabitants. From 2013 to 2014, farmers’ market tallies only grew nationally by about 1.5 percent, compared to 3.6 percent between 2012 and 2013 and 17 percent spike seen between 2010 and 2011.
One area where farmers’ markets might have a bright future is in vouchers and SNAP benefits for low-income families. A July 2014 study in Food Policy found that giving low-income moms up to $10 in vouchers for fresh fruits and vegetables at local farmers’ markets increased their family’s consumption of healthy foods. It’s not the first study to suggest that farmers’ markets could help improve diet and health of low-income families.
Currently one in four farmers markets accept SNAP benefits, and many local governments and nonprofits provide vouchers for fresh veggies and fruit exclusively. Incentive programs also give food stamps recipients additional benefits when they use their funds at farmers’ markets. The 2014 Farm Bill also established a new Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive program that puts $100 million in grants over the next five years towards programs like those though farmers’ markets and other retailers. The bill also allocated $4 million towards equipment for farmers’ markets to accept SNAP payments.
Back in 2011, the U. S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) declared the second week in August National Farmers’ Market Week. With events planned around the country this year, it’s no better time to give your local farmers’ market a try or return to your favorite kale or pickle vendor. Looking for a farmers’ market near you? Check out the map above or the USDA’s Farmers’ Market directory.