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Number of farmers markets in U.S. jumps 17 percent

The number farmers markets around country has more than doubled during last decade according federal statistics. | AP Photo/Andy Manis

The number of farmers markets around the country has more than doubled during the last decade, according to federal statistics. | AP Photo/Andy Manis

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Updated: August 22, 2011 3:15PM

When New Orleans chef Haley Bitterman prepares a specialty dinner or hankers after some soft shell crabs to fry at home, she could just ask the giant purveyors who serve her company to deliver a few extra. Instead, she visits the farmers market.

“It’s really important to support the local farmers,” says Bitterman, corporate executive chef for The Ralph Brennan Restaurant Group’s six restaurants. “Especially since Katrina, we all really learned that we needed to come together as a community and support each other. And that’s my part. I try to buy product for the restaurant at the farmers market as well.”

In part because of sentiment like that, the number of farmers markets around the country has more than doubled during the last decade, according to federal statistics. Last year alone, the number of markets jumped 17 percent to 7,175.

In one form or another, farmers markets have been around for quite a while. But culturally, the timing is right for growth. Consumers are increasingly interested in eating locally and sustainably produced foods. Government programs that channel funds to small farmers also have helped.

“They are a way people can reconnect with agriculture, with farmers, with how food is produced,” says Kathleen Merrigan, deputy agriculture secretary. “Once farmers markets start popping up, people start to see this works, and they start replicating.”

But some advocates say the government could be doing even more. More than 100,000 farms sell food directly to local consumers, according to an analysis by the Cambridge, Mass.-based Union of Concerned Scientists, pumping $1.2 billion into local economies. But last year, according to the report, the government spent nearly $14 billion on payments to large industrial farms, while providing less than $100 million to local and regional farmers.

In 2002, Congress created a farmers market promotion program as part of overall farm legislation that over the next two years will funnel $20 million toward expanding farmers markets and other direct marketing efforts. Other programs provide money for farmers to create value-added products, like jams or baked goods, to build better growing facilities, and to allow low-income shoppers to redeem food assistance vouchers at farmers markets. Some non-profit organizations, such as the Michigan-based Fair Food Network, match or supplement these benefits.

Merrigan says less than 3 percent of farmers are engaged in direct sales to consumers — meaning 97 percent are not. Last summer, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack asked Congress to draft legislation that would help create at least 100,000 new farmers, in part by providing support and training for farmers markets.

“Our goal is to increase them as one of several strategies to build local and regional food systems,” Merrigan says about the markets. “They’re a strategy. But it’s a strategy in one of many.”

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