Farmers markets are flourishing across America. More than 7,000 indoor and open-air markets operate at least part of the year in all 50 states, a 60 percent increase since 2000.
“People like knowing the farmer and supporting their local economy,” says Gretchen Hoffman, a spokeswoman for American Farmland Trust, based in Washington, D.C.
As director of America’s Favorite Farmers Markets Contest, Hoffman hears from hundreds of people who prefer buying local produce at its peak freshness for its health benefits and to support local farmers. “They really like the connection with their communities,” says Hoffman.
Some markets, such as Dubuque (Iowa) Farmers’ Market, a farmers-to-folks tradition since 1845, are seasonal—open from May through October—while others operate year-round, including America’s oldest—Lancaster Central Market in Lancaster, Pa., which began in 1730.
Inside Lancaster’s 1889 brick market house, shoppers browse 64 stands filled with fresh produce, goat milk cheese, turkey jerky, fudge, fresh-grated horseradish, tulips, ice cream and the German Deli. “You see a market operating in the same way it’s operated for 275 years,” says manager Michael Ervin, 76.
For more than 120 years, the John Stoner family has hauled its harvest to Central Market. “We grow a little bit of everything,” says Stoner, 70, who sells Brussels sprouts, eggplant, heirloom tomatoes, herbs, patty pan squash, radishes and sweet potatoes.
“The lettuces that John grows are incredible,” says Deidre Simmons, 56, of Lancaster, who has shopped at John and Ethel Stoner’s stand for 27 years. “After years of not eating iceberg lettuce, I now get John’s in early June. It’s delicious, so fresh from the field.”
For 20 years, Andrea Connolly, 70, has shopped Iowa’s oldest farmers market on Saturday mornings when the sidewalks around Dubuque City Hall become a bustling open-air marketplace perfumed with apples, peonies and homemade bread, and enlivened by a strolling accordion player and happy chatter.
“Their strawberries are always fresh and clean. I eat them as is,” says Connolly, 70, about the fruit picked a few hours earlier by the Frank Fincel family in nearby East Dubuque, Ill.
But “fresh” produce is the No. 1 attraction and has made the Fincels famous, especially in July and August when crowds of sweet corn lovers welcome wagonloads of Iowa’s iconic crop.
“We pick the corn fresh each morning at sunrise,” says Fincel, 58. “Corn is meant to be picked and eaten. We never sell a day-old ear of corn.”
That’s the way his great-grandfather sold sweet corn from his wagon at the market in 1890. During peak harvest, the Fincels sell up to 2,500 dozen ears each Saturday in Dubuque (pop. 57,637).
Shopper Debbie Burton, 55, of Dubuque, buys most of her weekly fare at the farmers market. Carrying a potted pepper plant, Burton and friend Barbara Etter, 40, meander the marketplace buying asparagus, bacon, beets, broccoli, eggs, potatoes and spinach.
While early birds get their pick of prime produce, most shoppers take time browsing seasonal fruits and vegetables and socializing with the farmers. At one stand, Mary Jo May, 75, shows a shopper how to remove the leaves from kohlrabi and slice the turnip-like vegetable into potato-chip-thin pieces to eat raw.
On the steps of City Hall, Susan Meyer, 32, relaxes with her children, Grace, 7, and Charlie, 3, savoring the sights, sounds and chocolate chip cookies.
“We come every Saturday,” says Meyer, of Dubuque. “We get our baked goods and then plop down at City Hall and eat and listen to the music.”
While some market’s shopping tradition spans centuries, the Romney Farmers Market in Romney, W.Va. (pop. 1,848), is a relative newcomer, started eight years ago by Ruth and Steven Martin and other local growers.
“It’s a small market and old-timey,” says Ruth, 57. “Some people operate off their tailgates and others have canopies or small trailers.”
The Martins raise Katahdin sheep, free-range chickens, heirloom vegetables and a variety of organically grown fruit, including blackberries, figs, mulberries, nectarines, plums and raspberries. The couple is among 16 vendors who promote gardening by sharing tips with one another and customers.
“We kind of feel like we’re role models to other people who’ve moved here from the city,” Ruth says, referring to retirees from Washington, D.C. “People seek us out, which is flattering.”