Farmers' markets produce a bumper crop of buyers

It takes more than a drop in the mercury to prevent devotees of the farmers' market in Old Town Alexandria, Va., from making their weekly visit. Even in the depths of winter, a steady flow of shoppers step gingerly through snow to peruse the selection of fresh apples, oranges, and baked goods on display in the icy morning air.

Sharon Meier, of nearby Mt. Vernon, wouldn't think of missing her Saturday morning tradition. "Coming to the farmers' market in Old Town is more than just a trip to the store," she says, stomping her feet to keep warm after buying a bag of honey bell oranges.

"It's a family experience," she continues, her husband Steve nodding in agreement. "People laugh when they hear this is what we do every Saturday ... until they try it once."

This condition is not limited to shoppers of the Alexandria market, which operates in a picturesque square in front of city hall. Millions of people across the country are getting hooked on this healthful habit. Since 1996, farmers' markets have multiplied 10 percent nationwide, according to a recent study by the Agriculture Marketing Service at the US Department of Agriculture.

These days, about 3,000 markets sprout up weekly in every nook and cranny of the country, says Kathleen Merrigan, administrator of the USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service. Last year, consumers spent about $1 billion in farmers' markets. "Direct marketing for farmers - through farmers' markets and other means - provides for them an economic viability they might otherwise not have," Ms. Merrigan says. "It is especially important for small farmers."

Farmers' markets, in fact, are a win-win situation for both producers and consumers, notes Ramu Govindasamy, assistant professor in the Department of Agriculture, Food and Resource Economics at Rutgers university in New Jersey.

"The farmers are getting a higher price than the wholesale price because they are selling directly to consumers," he explains. "While consumers are getting quality produce at a cheaper price compared to chain stores. They are eliminating the middle man."

Mr. Govindasamy estimates that farmers' market prices are about 10 percent to 20 percent cheaper than grocery stores.

His research found that consumers in New Jersey spend an average of $16 per visit. About 45 percent of regular market-goers visit a market once a week; 24 percent visit once a month, and 21 percent visit every two weeks.

Superior quality and freshness were two key factors cited for drawing shoppers to farmers' market over other retail facilities. When people are looking for fresh produce, Govindasamy says, "they don't mind driving the extra mile."

Connecting with growers

Farmers' markets exert another kind of pull that may be even more powerful than the mouth-watering prospect of eating farm-fresh fruits and vegetables - the chance to reconnect with the origins of one's food. The majority of people today live in cities and suburban areas, and never set foot on a farm anymore, notes USDA's Merrigan.

"A farmers' market provides for us a little venue into the agricultural world," she says. "We can connect with the farmer, we can learn about how food is grown. It's become a way of weaving back rural America into the urbanscape we live in."

Cynthia Gilley, who grew up on a farm and now lives in Alexandria, loves the chance to talk with farmers at the market. "It's important for me to come here and support the local farmers' efforts, and even the vendors efforts," she says. "We have a special camaraderie with some of the growers. We get to know them, and we can ask them how things are going."

Ms. Gilley's husband, Richard Soudriette, adds that markets like this also offer folks the chance to step back into a simpler era. "We live in such a fast-paced world, where everybody is racing out to the malls and being stuck in traffic," he says. "I think it is nice to have a place where you can just walk down the street and squeeze the oranges, squeeze the apples, taste the cider."

Like changes in the growing season, most farmers' markets lie dormant in winter. The market in Alexandria slows to a trickle from January to March, when only a handful of vendors set up shop - just enough to lay claim to having the oldest continuous year-round farmers' market in the country. (The market was founded in 1749, and George Washington became a trustee of the market in 1766.)

But come spring, "this place is packed," says baker Maribeth Nyerges, who has been selling her breads and muffins at the market for more than 15 years; a business that started as a small kitchen-based operation and has since turned into a major wholesale bakery, supplying restaurants and hotels throughout the Washington, D.C., area.

Springtime resurgence

By Easter, more than 110 vendors will fill the square around the fountain with a colorful display of fresh fruits, vegetables, flowers, seedlings, juices, jellies, crafts, and more. Ms. Nyerges loves the festive atmosphere. "I would never miss a market," she says. "It's the best part of the week."

Alexandria resident Bert Ely describes the market as a kind of a "village green" that goes well beyond selling food. "It's a social event," he says. "A lot of political groups and civic groups put up tables and stands, and discuss matters here. This is what gives a community the sense of community. People in the suburbs are beginning to realize that they need this - and they really do."

For more information about farmers' markets or to find a market in your area, visit the USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service Web site (www.ams.usda.gov).

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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