Facts About Farmers' Markets

Ransom Riggs

Growing up in Florida, I didn't know a farmers' market from a supermarket -- they didn't exist in my little corner of the world, and honestly I wasn't all that interested in veggies, anyway. (I was young, and to me hamburgers were nature's perfect food.) Ever since I moved to the West Coast in 2001, however, living in Oregon and all over Los Angeles, I've never been more than a few blocks from a weekly farmers' market, and the phenomenon has really grown on me.

We have a great one here in Santa Monica -- it's humblingly huge, you're liable to rub shoulders with celebrity actors and celebrity chefs alike, and yet it maintains a nice community vibe that I think -- besides the beautiful fruits and veggies, at least -- is the main attractor of people to these markets.

My friend Bill is a volunteer for the SM Farmers' Market, and earlier this week the market sent he and I on a mission: to take photographs of one of their peach suppliers' orchards, out in the rural Northeast part of LA County. It was a blast, so I thought I would share some of my pictures and some facts about farmers' markets here. It was peach blossom time rather than peach harvest time, so our trip was a treat for the eyes more than the palate:

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Click above for a huge-sized version of this pic.

Though farmers' markets have been around ever since there were farmers, they've skyrocketed in popularity over the past decade. In the U.S. and Canada, there were 1,755 such markets in 1994, versus 4,385 of them in 2006. (There are still none in my hometown, though Florida's got more u-pick orange businesses than I care to think about.)

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Above: a bee pollinates a nectarine blossom.

Dubbed "the farmers' market effect" by the New York Times, a recent study shows that vouchers that permit low-income women to shop at a local farmers' market increase fruit and vegetable consumption in poor families. "It's not clear why mothers visiting a farmers' market wound up buying more vegetables than grocery store shoppers, but some women told the researchers that the produce sold at markets seemed to be fresher and of higher quality than supermarket offerings. Many shoppers also said they enjoyed the pleasant community experience and the chance to interact directly with growers, the authors noted." They certainly have that effect on me.

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The grower, John, shows me where buds will eventually turn into peaches.

Lately, though, a controversy has been brewing in LA's farmers' markets (sure to be mirrored in other major markets around the country) -- the celebrity chefs who were once grumbled-about by hardcore home cookers for swooping in early and snapping up the best mulberries and English peas -- are now grumbling about huge pre-orders placed by huge produce distributors, which now snap up product from under their noses. Along with increased demand for fresh, organic produce, farmers' markets have become big business -- and to some, that means a loss of that community feel that made them so much fun to begin with. (You can read about this tempest in a peapod here, in the LA Times.)

Do you have a local farmers' market? Has it changed the way you eat?