Farmers markets are becoming more common not only in Iowa, but also across the nation. The U.S. Department of Agriculture took note of that development this month during the celebration of National Farmers Market Week.
According to the USDA, there are now 8,133 farmers markets listed in the department's National Farmers Market Directory - published online at farmersmarkets.usda.gov. That's a more than 60 percent increase in the last five years. The USDA estimates that as recently as 2008 only about 5,000 markets qualified for this listing.
"Farmers markets are an important public face for agriculture and a critical part of our nation's food system," said U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack in a statement released by his office Aug. 3. "They provide benefits not only to the farmers looking for important income opportunities, but also help fill a growing consumer demand for fresh, healthy foods."
The former Iowa governor also stressed that the USDA is working aggressively to promote local and regional marketing opportunities for producers. That's good news for farmers everywhere. It's also beneficial to the general public because the USDA - through the directory and other measures - is helping to inform consumers about the economic and health advantages of patronizing farmers markets.
The latest Census of Agriculture documents that direct sales of food products from farmers to consumers - through farmers markets and other outlets - is a rapidly growing segment of American agriculture. The Census shows a 50 percent increase in these direct sales from 2002 to 2007. What was a $1 billion segment of the agricultural marketplace in 2002 grew to $4.8 billion in 2007. According to the USDA, industry estimates put the annual figure at about $7 billion for 2012 - and much future growth is anticipated in 2013 and beyond.
As one would expect, Iowa is in the top 10 states in terms of the number of farmers markets listed in the directory - tied for No. 10 with North Carolina, each of which has 229 entries.
The directory is a superb resource but isn't the only USDA initiative that supports farmers markets.
The department's Food and Nutrition Service has outfitted many farmers markets with the ability to accept SNAP - Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Nearly 4,000 farmers markets were authorized to accept SNAP in fiscal year 2012.That number is expected to grow. The USDA's Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food educational initiative also complements the department's other efforts to improve the marketplace for producers.
The Messenger applauds the USDA for its strong, multifaceted support of farmers markets. These efforts help the agricultural economy in the Hawkeye State and elsewhere. They also contribute to a healthier population by improving consumer access to fresh produce.