By ROBERT GIBLIN
For the Capital Press
Memorial Day weekend semi-officially marked the beginning of summer, but in many parts of the country, summer seasonal farmers' markets have been open for one or two months and people are flocking to them.
The Agriculture Department reports that there were 7,864 U.S. farmers' markets in 2012, an increase of 28 percent in just two years and more than 4.5 times the number of markets in 1994. Of those, 1,864 are winter farmers' markets, which increased 52 percent in just the last year. They have grown so popular that in May, USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service released a Farmers' Market Application Programming Interface -- geek-speak for a computer program designed to help developers easily create computer and phone apps to provide foodies and farmers with accurate, up-to-date information about local markets.
The meteoric growth in the number and popularity of farmers' markets correlates to numerous consumer food, health and shopping trends. Perhaps unspoken is the feeling that farmers' markets provide the solution to the frustrations that many consumers cite with traditional grocery stores.
Consumers are encouraged to shop for "healthy foods" at the outer circle of supermarkets and to avoid the "center store." Fresh products -- produce, meats, dairy, baked goods, plants and flowers -- are featured in the outer circle. Processed foods, snacks, canned goods and carbonated beverages dominate the center store.
There is no center store at farmers' markets; the entire market is the healthy outer circle. The perception of freshness, great taste and access to "local" foods are among the top reasons consumers like to shop at farmers' markets. The most popular draws are fresh fruits and vegetables; herbs and flowers; honey, nuts and preserves; and baked goods. Most also have some meat and poultry selections, as well as artisanal cheeses and some crafts.
With few exceptions, most consumers say grocery shopping is an unpleasant life necessity, but a trip to the farmers' market is a joyful experience and social event that may be shared with friends and family. Larger markets can have more than a hundred vendors, complemented by live music, theatrical performances, games and events for kids. Consumers will happily shop for hours at the farmers' market, in a sensory treasure hunt that entices them to linger, look, smell, taste and talk.
Farmers' markets are becoming tourist destinations, with tour writers consistently promoting a top 10 list of "must-see" markets in all parts of the country. As many as 10 percent of shoppers drive at least 20 miles to visit their nearest farmers' market; some drive 50 or more miles for the opportunity to feel "greenish" and buy local.
Access to farmers' markets is a corporate benefit or perk for some employees. Medium-sized markets set up for a couple of hours weekly in parking lots of large corporations and office buildings, bringing the experience to busy workers.
Another appeal of farmers' markets is also, potentially, one of the greatest risks as they become more popular -- access (or lack of access) to farmers.
Consumers have questions about where their food comes from, how it is grown, safety, quality, and how to prepare it. With few exceptions, workers at grocery stores don't have the answers. Consumers believe farmers do.
In his top 10 food predictions for 2012, "Supermarket guru" Phil Lempert said consumer interest in knowing where their food comes from and how it is produced would shift the emphasis from celebrity chefs to a different kind of food celebrity -- the farmer.
Between two-thirds and three-fourths of markets require vendors to sell only what they grow, but farmers increasingly are hiring other workers to operate their stands. In his 2013 predictions, Lempert acknowledged the increasing popularity of farmers' markets but noted that shoppers are growing frustrated as they discover that the people behind the tables may not always be farmers, or able to answer their questions.
It's clear that farmers' markets are a win for farmer with goods to sell. They're also an experiential engagement opportunity that more farmers may want to consider taking advantage of, regardless of whether they have goods to sell.
More broadly, farmers' markets represent a win-win-win for farmers, consumers and communities. Staying on that winning path will require farmers to remain knowledgeable about what consumers want, including representing agriculture, farming and food -- in person.
Robert Giblin is an occasional contributor to the American Farm Bureau's Focus on Agriculture series. He writes, speaks and consults about agricultural and food industry issues, policies and trends.