Farmers’ markets grew 17% over the past year, bringing our national total to 7,175. Could this trend help reap a more sustainable future?
Farmers’ markets are taking root from coast to coast. One thousand new, food-centric bazaars have opened over last year, according to fresh USDA numbers. That brings our national total to 7,175 markets across the nation, more than double the 3,706 from in 2004. This trend could have a huge impact on our economy and way of life.
On an individual or family level, the increase of farmers’ markets will have a direct impact on people’s health. It’s impossible to deny that fresh fruits and vegetables, stripped of their pesticides, preservatives and image-enhancing waxes, are far better for our bodies than mass produced produce. And 12% of all locations accept food stamps, thereby ensuring that low-income families have access to at least some of the bounty.
Then there’s the fact that independent emporiums allow consumers a more intimate shopping experience, which brings peace of mind during the seemingly ubiquitous food recalls.
“Whenever there is a food-borne outbreak, it drives more consumers to farmers’ markets,” Dianne Eggert, executive director of the Farmer’s Market Federation of New York, told Reuters. “They can ask more questions about how their food is produced.”
But obviously farmers’ markets aren’t just about hippie-dippie love and happiness that yield strong, trusting, healthy communities. They’re businesses, and they’re booming in surprising places.
The USDA’s report shows that Alaska boasted the most growth: Sarah Palin’s home state saw a 45% increase in markets over last year, which translates to 35 new posts. Texas, Colorado and New Mexico all experienced a 38% increase. In the latter state, that translated to 80 new markets.
As the nation continues to suffer under unemployment, the cultivation of these small businesses could have an enormous impact on the agricultural market, helping reduce corporate control and giving average Americans a chance to sustain themselves.
But only if they continue to grow: as Miller-McCune pointed out last year, there are about 85,200 grocery stores in the States. That’s 15 for every one farmers’ market.
An increase in existing government grants — the feds last year allocated $5 million for the cause, and promise to double that this 2011 and 2012 to farmers’ markets — would help level the playing field, as would other incentives for increased expansion in areas that still lack access.
Finally, there’s the environmental question. While it’s common belief that farmers’ markets help reduce the carbon emissions associated with factory farming, mass packaging and distribution, there’s also much debate about it and little solid evidence that “local” foods, which are driven in smaller quantities and therefore require more gas-guzzling trips, indeed have a huge impact on the environment.
In fact, some science suggests that how we eat may be more important than how we buy. From a 2008 study from Carnegie Mellon researchers Christopher L. Weber and H. Scott Matthews:
…With the unrealistic assumption of zero food-miles, only relatively small shifts in the average household diet could achieve GHG reductions similar to that of localization. For instance, only 21−24% reduction in red meat consumption, shifted to chicken, fish, or an average vegetarian diet lacking dairy, would achieve the same reduction as total localization. Large reductions are more difficult in shifting away from only dairy products (at least on a calorie basis) but making some shifts in both red meat and dairy, on the order of 13−15% of expenditure or 11−19% of calories, would achieve the same GHG reduction as total localization.
Still, farmers’ markets take up less space than agribusiness’ brand names, thereby cutting back on deforestation and over-farming of soil, and beef sold at a local fairs was most likely treated more humanely and with
less fewer hormones than those sold at the grocery store.
So, while it will take more than fruits, vegetables and farm fresh eggs to save this nation’s environmental and economic future, the rise of farmers’ markets could at the very least keep American communities healthy, happy and economically robust — and that’s a step in the right direction, clearly.