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Appetite for farmers markets grows

(Tuesday, Sept. 14, 2004 -- CropChoice news) -- Anne Fitzgerald, Des Moines Register, 09/10/04:
Farmers markets are cropping up across the nation, but not fast enough to satisfy consumers' growing appetite for locally produced foods, experts said Thursday in Des Moines.

Sales at the markets represent a tiny portion of total food purchases in the United States. But the number of markets continues to increase, as more farmers see opportunities for themselves in trying to serve the growing consumer demand for homegrown meat, eggs, fruit and vegetables.

The problem is that too few farmers are raising farm-fresh foods.

"We are a long way from hitting the limit," said George DeVault, a farm editor at Rodale Inc. and co-owner of a small-scale, organic farm in Emmaus, Pa. "Demand is not the problem. Production is."

Farmers markets have long been a fixture in New England and along the east and west coasts. In recent years, the markets have spread to the Corn Belt and other inland regions, said speakers at a national workshop on farmers' markets.

Co-sponsored by Drake University's Agricultural Law Center and the Iowa Food Policy Council, the two-day event is being held on the Drake campus and concludes today.

Since the early '90s, the number of markets has more than tripled, going from about 1,000 to more than 3,200, said Charlie Touchette, executive director of the North American Farmers' Direct Marketing Association based in Southhampton, Mass.

In Iowa, the number has nearly quadrupled during the same period. It now stands at 182 markets.

It is significant to see that kind of growth in Iowa, a state known best for producing huge amounts of corn, soybeans, cattle and hogs, not small-scale crops, Touchette said.

"That says we've arrived," he told the conference. "Even the big-bucks markets and supermarkets want local produce. It's not an accident that they are providing local produce when it's available.

"Essentially, whatever's being grown is sold," he said.

That is the case across the nation, speakers said.

Direct marketing of farm-fresh products takes many forms, including roadside stands, pick-your-own operations and community supported agriculture, opera- tions that provide farm-fresh food weekly during the growing season to consumer-subscribers.

But farmers markets are the most widely known venue for farmers to sell directly to consumers.

The markets are more than a passing fad and have become an integral part of the U.S. food system, Touchette and others said. The markets offer an alternative marketing approach for farms saddled with soaring costs and tight profit margins, they said.

DeVault and his wife, Melanie, for instance, generate gross income of up to $15,000 per acre annually by raising vegetables, herbs, blueberries and flowers on part of their 20-acre farm in Pennsylvania. He estimates that it would take about 100 acres of corn or 260 acres of soybeans with average prices and yields to generate that much money.

"You can do a lot on a little bit of land, and more and more people are figuring that out," DeVault said.

Farmers markets also offer a way into agriculture for beginning farmers, who often struggle to find the capital needed to start a conventional farming operation.

Proponents of locally grown foods also claim that farmers markets and other direct marketing approaches for farmers increase the nation's food security by decreasing reliance on food brought in from distant parts of the country or from overseas.

"That pendulum has swung so far that we have to be careful," Touchette said. "There is harm in not having an economically diverse safety net. The local farmer is our safety net."