September 1, 2010

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Garden Variety

Farmers Markets Offer the Cream of Local Crops

Nina Bennett

September 1, 2010

Summer intones a steady beat and camaraderie calls at Utah farmers markets, where spirited vendors complement crowds of shoppers, some seeking fresh produce for dinner, others a unique piece of artwork to perfect their wall.

On the rise nationally and becoming a larger player in America's food system, farmers markets go hand in hand with a modern food renaissance, marked by an increasing demand for organic, locally grown food that is healthier and tastier.

One frequent visitor to the Salt Lake Downtown Farmers Market, Kevin Cochran, says that his reason for shopping at the market is twofold: “I’ve made a commitment to support local businesses and I want organic food, so it just makes sense.”

Building Community
Nothing epitomizes buying local more than farmers markets. A gathering place for farmers, artisan food producers and artists, these markets host cuisine made a kitchen away and fruit, herbs and vegetables picked clean from a local field—sometimes that very morning.

Utah now has more than 30 farmers markets statewide, and fresh food has never been more in fashion, partly due to the green movement, but also a result of the economic situation that has many people cooking at home to save money. A 2008 survey by Mintel International, a market research firm, reported that approximately 60 percent of Americans are cooking more and eating out less.

Just as tastes and needs have evolved, so too has awareness about food production—causing Utahns to question where they get their food from, whether it is truly healthy and nutritious, and if it is supportive of local agriculture and land preservation.

One can certainly feel the altruistic, communal undercurrent that runs through any farmers market in Utah. The markets are a hub for ideas and social interaction, invigorating a sense of community that merges rural regions with urban city centers, creating renewed respect between the two cultures.

Building Business
The benefits of farmers markets are broad ranging, extending from farmers to consumers, through communities and ultimately impacting the economy as a whole.  A study by Project for Public Spaces found that nationally, on average, more than 60 percent of farmers market shoppers visited nearby stores on the same day, making nearby property lucrative locations for business owners. In fact, many states see farmers markets as part of urban planning models that attract buyers and provide a distinctive feel to a community, infusing it with culture, creativity and a unique identity that outshines other areas.

Peter Barerra, director of the Historic 25th Street Farmers Market in Ogden, says that one of the most important things the market has done for the community is to "bring business downtown." The market, which draws between 8,000 and 10,000 people per week, has helped to revamp Ogden's downtown district. "There is a synergy going on that brings out a variation in culture," Barerra says, "attracting all age groups and generations."

Making innovations to the market’s setup and creating weekly attractions, Barerra has increased the number of vendors from 60 to 175 in the past four years, which has, as he says, "given tons of exposure to Ogden businesses. Every week we want to bring in a new group or a new event that will increase our audience—the more you have, the more people come.”

While farmers markets add value to cities and neighborhoods, they also encourage farmland preservation and keep local farms in business, according to the Farmers Market Coalition. By providing farmers with a selling forum, small-to-medium-sized, often family-run farms can sell directly to the public and realize greater profits. And consumers can find the freshest produce available at relatively low prices. Both get something invaluable: direct contact that develops a relationship between those growing food and those taking in its sustenance.

CSAs: Another Win-Win
Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) is another way for farmers to connect more directly with their customers. CSA programs allow members of the local community to pay a one-time fee at the beginning of the growing season to help meet a farm's operating expenses. In return, these members, or "shareholders," receive a portion of the farm's crops, which may include vegetables, fruits, herbs, eggs, milk and meat, typically on weekly basis. The benefits are circular: farmers are provided with financial resources upfront, the risk of crop failure is shared and consumers enjoy fresh, organically grown food all season long. Some CSAs offer members the chance to earn shares by working on the farm or helping out with chores. In a time when people are taking a more active interest in their food, CSA is an ideal way for people to learn how their food is produced and gain hands-on experience while socializing with growers.

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