The number of farmers markets has doubled nationally in the past decade.
PHILADELPHIA (AP) -- Gina Humphreys has been in the espresso business for 15 years, managing coffee bars from coast to coast, but lately she's been getting more excited about carrot juice and salad greens than cappuccino and coffee beans.
Specializing in veggie juices, she is one of about a dozen sellers who set up shop every Saturday at a West Philadelphia farmers market, a cornucopia of eggs, baked goods, grass-fed beef and pork, goat milk and cheese, flowers, local honey and maple syrup, fruits and vegetables.
"I think the [farmers] markets are going to be bigger than espresso someday," said Humphreys, who grows organic vegetables on a slice of her father's 70-acre farm in Pennsville, N.J. "I love this so much, I can't even tell you."
In big cities and small towns, farmers markets are finding fertile ground: The U.S. Agriculture Department says their number has doubled nationally in the past decade, to more than 3,700.
The growing popularity of the markets is attributed to a number of factors: less tolerance for bland meat and produce some consumers associate with big factory farms, more demand for just-picked freshness and nutrition of locally grown food, increased awareness about supporting local economies, and health and environmental concerns about the use of antibiotics and pesticides.
Lois Fahnestock of Fahnestock Fruit Farm in Lititz, in Pennsylvania Dutch country, said business has increased just about every year since the farm began selling here 12 years ago. She was down to tomatoes and basil early one recent Saturday after selling out of spinach, peppers, eggs and flowers.
"People have gotten much more knowledgeable about nutrition and the benefits [of local food] and they're more concerned about pesticides," she said.
A 2003 study by the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University found that if price and appearance were identical, consumers given a choice were more likely to purchase locally grown foods over those produced far away. Even though prices tend to be higher for local produce, consumers will pay more for a product they believe is healthier and tastier.
"Buying local is less wasteful, it reconnects us with our neighbors, and the food tastes better and is more wholesome," said Duane Perry, founder of The Food Trust, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit that helps bring more farmers markets into the city, and advocates for healthier school lunches.
In Pennsylvania, the market demand for locally grown produce could increase to the point that it outstrips supply, said Cheryl Cook of the state Agriculture Department. In response, the state has unveiled initiatives including "PA Grows," which helps farmers get the funding they need to start or expand their operations.
The trend reflects what is essentially an effort to "bring back the milkman," said Guillermo Payet, who in 1998 founded California-based Local Harvest, an online directory of farmers markets and other local food options that gets about 9,000 visits daily.
Since Perry founded The Food Trust in 1992, it has evolved from a single stand to 20 open-air markets in the Philadelphia region, drawing about 65 farmers from within a 21/2-hour radius. Most of their farms range in size from 10 to 100 acres.
Once they are established in markets, farmers often will adapt to the demand.
"You can have farmers who start raising goats for goat cheese, or who start growing microgreens and other more avant-garde products," Perry said. "There's huge market potential to grow more than cantaloupes, corn and tomatoes, which were the bread and butter [of the markets] in the beginning."
Farmers more recently have branched out to grass-fed beef and lamb, and free-range chicken and eggs, because of consumer awareness of mad cow disease and how animals are treated -- and the taste of the products.
"I dream all winter long about the peaches I get here in the summer," said Mike Simpson, a regular at the twice-weekly market in West Philadelphia. "I'm out here for the potatoes and the greens come December, but summertime is heaven."
Customers like Simpson have proven very loyal.
"They're here in the blinding snow, torrential rain," said Susan Richards of Spiral Path Farm in Loysville, about 130 miles west of Philadelphia, as her strawberries, organic sauces and fruit spreads were snapped up.
A growing trend
Though the government has not tracked farmers market sales nationally, the "buy local" movement has clearly helped many small farms regain their financial footing, Perry said.
"It's not as though farmers are making a fortune on this, by any means," he said. "But some farmers are finding there's a growing market out there for them to tap into."
Payet identified several trends to watch, including growing demand for raw milk and heritage breeds of turkey, pork, beef and lamb.
Many supermarkets have also been picking up on the trend, highlighting locally grown produce -- often with displays that conjure up farmers markets.
In Virginia, Richmond-based chain Ukrop's has been buying organic produce for five years from a growing list of farmers. In Chicago, 12 grocers earlier this year agreed to sell locally grown produce in their stores as part of a "Family Farmed" promotion highlighting regional farmers.
"One thing we are fabulous at as an industry is getting products from Point A to Point B ... whether the farm is 30 miles or 2,000 miles away," said Michael Sansolo of the Food Marketing Institute, a Washington-based industry group.