By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

We don’t really need the federal government to tell us to appreciate farmer’s markets. It’s pretty obvious how these markets can help us — bringing the freshest produce to town, supporting local farmers and food artisans, increasing our “food security” and expanding our universe of healthy options.

Farmers markets can provide local, healthy food, with no middle man (Photo: Green Right Now)

But since the USDA has declared this to be Farmer’s Markets week (Aug. 1-7), let’s celebrate the estimated 5,200+ markets operating in the U.S., up from 4,685 just two years ago.

As an organizer at one expanding Texas market said, “This isn’t just a market, it’s a movement.”

The growth of farmer’s markets is both fueling and responding to a rising tide of interest in whole, organic and locally grown foods as Americans realize that over-processed and highly preserved foods are not as healthy for them.

If you haven’t been shopping at a farmer’s outlet recently, you can find one near you by using the locater at Local Harvest.org. Local Harvest also catalogs farms and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) groups, which operate like co-ops in which members pre-buy a set amount of produce or farm goods, thereby providing the farmer with a sustaining cash flow.

Farmers markets are casual and direct; no middle man (Photo: Green Right Now)

The US Department of Agriculture also has an online locater that includes listings for markets that accept food stamps.

Another benefit of shopping for fruits and vegetables at farmer’s markets is that you can interact with the grower. If you want to know how the peaches you’re buying are produced (it’s difficult to find completely organic peaches) or how long the blueberries will be in season, or what type of fields the bees are feeding in, you can get answers. These are not hard questions for a producer; but a stocker at a grocery store would probably just scratch her head.

You also can refine your local cooking skills by getting more in tune with seasonal ebb and flow of growing food. You’ll learn that when the zucchini wanes, the patty pan squash takes it place. Want to try boysenberries, kale, dakon radish, turnips, and other things that don’t always turn up at the grocery store? You’ll find them at market, along with some cooking advice.

You might also find other ways to participate in the local food network. Perhaps the dairy farmer you sometimes see at market also sells at certain small groceries, or maybe a farmer will sell directly to a neighborhood group that you get together. (Be careful with this one though, some folks in Massachusetts recently got nailed for operating their own “food distribution network” to buy raw milk. This seems ridiculous on its face in a free market society. But with large multinationals tightly controlling much of the food supply, the Massachusetts case won’t be the last. To read more on the battles over raw milk, and the right to buy it, see the Organic Consumers Union’s raw milk archive. Some natural food advocates see the raw milk debate as the frontier that must be defended to protect all local food operations.)

Texas honey, every variety (Photo: Green Right Now)

Ironically, Massachusetts, where this battle over local buying still rages, has put together an extensive, easy-to-read instructional about starting your own farmer’s market.

The USDA also has advice — and grants — for those wanting to start a local market, which can be set up on private or public property almost anywhere people are likely to congregate.

The USDA administers the Farmers Market Promotion Program, which has a budget of about $5 million a year that it can use to provide grants (up to $100,000 maximum) to non-profits, cities and farmer coops setting up farmers markets.

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