The phrase ''farm-fresh produce'' is taking on a brand-new meaning for many American consumers. More and more of them are buying direct from the farmers.
Studies by the US Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service in 1978, 1979, and 1980 show that from 5 to 15 percent of all farmers have been selling a part of their products directly to family buyers. They have been selling through farmers' markets, roadside stands, pick-your-own farm plots, and carry-home arrangements.
The nonregional USDA surveys, which grouped random state information, showed that products best suited for direct-to-customer marketing were flowers, nursery stock, apples, strawberries, peaches, sweet corn, and tomatoes.
California, the nation's No. 1 agricultural state, has a highly active direct-to-consumer network. Its Department of Food and Agriculture has supervised and encouraged growth of the state's Certified Farmers' Markets. Now totaling over 70, these markets operate in or near towns and cities year-round on a particular day of they year. San Francisco has two of its own, one in the heart of the city at UN Plaza is open for four hours on Sunday, and one on Alemany Boulevard, which is open all day from Tuesday through Saturday.
In addition to these widespread Certified Farmers' Markets, the state's direct marketing program has organized and published a Farmer-to-Consumer Directory. This contains a listing of about 1,000 California ranchers and growers, along with information on what they specialize in and when consumers can visit their premises to buy the products. Besides showing the growing season , hours, and crop harvest time, the directory tells which farms require customers to pick (U-PICK), which reguire containers (BYOC), and which crops are organically grown.
In a few places, there is even a practical family-outing arrangement where for a fixed fee consumers can ''rent'' a tree with a guaranteed minimum yield. When the fruit is ready, the renter goes to the orchard and picks his own. Direct-marketing farmers say that with customer visits to farms and the expansion of farmers' markets, they will be able to offer more substantial savings to consumers. And in many cases they can provide produce from the fields a few days fresher.
California's some 2,000 semirural roadside stands, while not yet directory-organized, also contribute to the direct farm-to-market picture. Two of the most popular California items are pumpkins and Christmas trees, Food and Agriculture Department officials say. To support this demand at Halloween and the Christmas season, the department has a telephone farmer-consumer information line. A call will bring consumers updated grower listings on farms with pumpkins for sale and those with ready-to-cut Christmas trees.