Kim O'Donnel is a freelance food writer and the author of the Meat Lovers' Meatless Cookbook and Meat Lovers' Meatless Celebrations.
The worst drought since the 1950s continues to wreak havoc on America’s bread basket, shriveling up commodity corn and soybean crops and driving up food prices. But there is heartening news from the local agricultural sector: Farmers' markets are booming.
Last week, the USDA released its annual update of the National Farmers Market Directory*, which is now 7,864 markets strong. It’s a 9.6 percent uptick since last year, and more than double the number of markets since 2004.
The latest tally was announced in preparation of National Farmers Market Week, which started Sunday and has been formally acknowledged by the US Agriculture Secretary since 1996. As stated in a proclamation signed by Secretary Tom Vilsack, one of the goals of the week-long commemoration is “to further awareness … of the many contributions farmers make to daily life in America…” (Festivities continue through August 11.)
In addition to California (which far surpasses any other state with 827 markets), New York, Massachusetts, Michigan and Wisconsin are the five most farmers' market-centric states. The mid-Atlantic region (Delaware, DC, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, New Jersey and Pennsylvania) has experienced the most growth – a combined 15.8 percent increase of markets since last year.
The farmers' market is where you can ask everything you wanted to know (but have been made afraid to ask) about conventional, organic, antibiotics and grass versus grain-fed, and actually get a straight answer – and often an invitation to visit the farm.
Over the years, farmers' markets have been criticized for being exclusive dens of foodie-dom, but access is changing, albeit slowly. As of last year, less than one-fourth of all farmers' markets were equipped with wireless EBT technology to redeem SNAP/food stamp vouchers. A $4 million USDA grant issued in May aims to make more markets SNAP voucher-friendly.
For this longtime farmers' market shopper, who also worked a tree fruit stand in the summers of 2004 and 2005, the continued growth of farmers' markets isn’t just encouraging news -- it’s a sign of the growing demand for seasonal ingredients from one’s local food shed. It is proof positive that the consumer doesn’t much like drowning in the sea of supermarket aisles jammed with boxes of instant food-like items, especially with their link to this country’s obesity epidemic. Change is coming, crumb by crumb, and the farmers' market is where we may bear witness.
You won’t find genetically modified crops or high-fructose corn syrup there, or eggs from chickens that have lived in battery cages. Instead, it’s a place where you can feel safe from the maze that is the industrial food system, a place where you might be offered a sampled of newly aged cheddar or pick up tips on how to store basil or cut up a winter squash.
It’s where you can have a conversation with the very person who raised the pigs that became the bacon you're about to fry and compost-fertilized the tomatoes that will cozy up to those rashers on your BLT. It’s where you can ask everything you wanted to know (but have been made afraid to ask) about conventional, organic, antibiotics and grass versus grain-fed, and actually get a straight answer – and often an invitation to visit the farm.
The farmers' market is the shelter from the storm of weekly food safety scares, troubling news like GMO sweet corn at Wal-Mart and unlabeled pink slime. It is where people of all stripes in our communities gather, and where transparency is the default setting. As we wring our hands over the future of America’s heartland, the farmers' market gives us hope and makes us proud.
Happy Farmers' Market Week, America.
*Editor’s note: It’s “You Say Tomato,” farmers' market edition! The USDA is either slow to change or not quite as picky about punctuation as some editors/food activists. We've long added the apostrophe indicating that the markets, if only figuratively, belong to the farmers who sell their delicious local food there. Forgive us the distracting lack of grammatical consistency here.