Field of Greens: The Growth in Farmers Markets

With the proliferation of farmers markets across the country, farms are turning up in the most unlikely places.
With the proliferation of farmers markets across the country, farms are turning up in the most unlikely places.

Been to the supermarket this weekend? These days you have another choice: Farmers markets have taken root in cities across the nation. Martha Teichner takes us on a tour in our Sunday Morning Cover Story guaranteed to make you "green" with envy...

As farmers markets go, it isn't impressive: One little stall in the lobby of an office building. It's not impressive, unless you consider where these vegetables were grown . . .

The roof.

"It's a 40,000 square foot rooftop farm, it's about an acre," said Ben Flanner of Brooklyn Grange. "And we're growing 50, 60, 70 different varieties of vegetables."

Flanner and four friends are running a commercial farm, seven stories off the ground, surrounded by a to-die-for view of the New York City skyline. The soil, a million pounds of it, had to be raised a sack at a time by crane.

"There's thousands and thousands of empty rooftops across New York City," he said," and it just makes sense to do something productive on them."

Commercial farms on city rooftops may not be a trend, yet, but the growth of farmers markets in this country definitely is. Just out: U.S. Dept. of Agriculture figures showing the number at 6,100 plus, up 16 percent since 2009, meaning more than 850 have opened just this past year.

"Speaking of the USDA, it has a farmers market every Friday outside its Washington, D.C., headquarters, where Deputy Secretary of Agriculture (and farmers market booster) Kathleen Merrigan shops regularly.

"The access to the fresh, high-quality food, the joy of connecting with a farmer, really should be for everybody," Merrigan said.

"Do you think in the last few years, something fundamentally has changed about how Americans see food and the access to it?" Teichner asked.

"I think people are waking up," Merrigan replied.

Madison, Wisconsin, has the nation's biggest farmers market. Naturally, it sells local cheese. Every region showcases its own specialties, from Portland, Ore., to Portland, Me.

In Maine, Anna and Eli were shopping: "We've got some carrots, some basil, tomatoes, blueberries."

Just randomly stopping shoppers, especially younger ones, what's clear is that shopping at farmers markets isn't just fun . . . it's serious, part of a socially responsible life.

Teichner indicated the pregnant belly of Anna. "He's going to eat well!" Anna said.

"Yeah," said Eli. "He's getting food from, you know, his community."

For decades we've been hearing about the death of the family farm, but consider this: Farmers markets and other forms of selling straight to customers are helping to keep farmers in business.

Third generation Maine farmer John Snell makes twice as much money selling at this Portland market as he would selling wholesale to middlemen.

Now, this next piece of information may come as a shock:

Snell says a farmer with 1,000 acres or soybeans and corn in rotation do NOT make more money per acre. "No, no. Their gross, per acre is significantly less, which is why they're farming 1,000, 2,000 acres, where we're probably farming for vegetables, maybe, 25."

Stacy Brenner grew up in the suburbs; so did her husband, John Bliss. They're part of a new wave of committed farmers.

"It's about eating well and living well, working hard," Brenner said. "I don't need to go the gym; I just go outside and do a little work!"

"None of this is about money; I want enough to live on, but that's plenty," she said.

They operate Broadturn Farm in Scarborough, Maine.

Brenner says CSA produce is the "bread and butter" of their farm.

CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture. Customers pay $500 a season for a weekly share of the produce.

Instead of going to the farmers market, members (as they're called) come to the farm.

"They know exactly where the food is grown, they see how the food is grown," said Bliss. "And they leave with a really, I think, broadened perspective on farming."

The USDA is now spending roughly $5 million a year as part of its new Farmers Market Promotion Program.

The first grants were announced last September, on the day first lady Michelle Obama launched the new "By the White House" market in Washington.

"This market is not just about food, it's about our community, and this is just the beginning of the discussion," she said.

Much of that discussion is about how to make healthy food available to lower income Americans in urban areas considered "food deserts."

Farmers markets that accept government benefits are seen as one answer. Washington, D.C., markets match them with what they call double dollars.

"My granddaughter is covered by WIC, and her mother, you know, is covered by WIC," said Gloria Foss.

"Today, I'm planning to get some melons and some corn, and with my free dollars, if they still have the crabs over there, I'm gonna go for some crabs," Foss laughed.

Sure enough, they did, caught the day before, steamed that very morning.

But here's a question: Without double dollars or WIC or some other government program, are the people who need access to fresh food most, priced out of farmers markets?

In season there are bargains. But in Washington, Mark Seibert sells his organic milk for approximately $12 a gallon, with no apologies.

"We feel that the prices we charge reflect true costs of production and getting here to market it," Seibert said at his Clear Spring Creamery stall.

At New York City's Union Square market, Brazilian chef Marco Moreira is concerned about price but he's more concerned about quality.

Salad at $12 a quarter-pound? "This is worth every penny," Marco said.

"It's a guest of honor but, you know, so you use it carefully," he said.

It's Wednesday, and the market is crawling with chefs, not to mention on average 60,000 other shoppers, all looking - just like Moreira - for their "guests of honor" . . . those perfect chanterelle mushrooms or maybe teeny, weeny little cucumbers the size of your thumbnail.

Teichner sampled some parsley she described as stronger than normal. "That's why I recommend everyone tasting, all day long," said seller Franca. "Tasting is believing."

Moreira's restaurant, Tocqueville, is half a block away and features a daily greenmarket menu.

"The ingredients speak for themselves, so you don't really need to do a lot to them," Moreira said.

Back in the kitchen, Moreira's composition takes shape:

Tomato confit, corn salad, crispy zucchini flowers, chanterelle brown butter vinaigrette . . .

"A little taste of summer," Moreira said. "Let's see if it works!"

Grilled lobster meets the green market, in all its glory.

For more info:
USDA Farmers Markets
USDA's Know Your Farmer/Know Your Food Program (government benefit money-matching programs at farmers markets)
Broadturn Farm
Scarborough Land Trust
Snell Family Farm
Brooklyn Grange
Clear Spring Creamery
Eckerton Hill Farm
Environmental Working Group
EWG's Analysis of Agricultural Subsidies
Watershed Media's farm bill study, "Food Fight"
Chef Marco Moreira's restaurant, Tocqueville

Information on local farmers markets in:
Dane County, Wisconsin
Hilo, Hawaii
Bedford-Stuyvesant, N.Y.C.
Union Square, N.Y.C.
Portland, Me.
Portland, Ore.
San Francisco, Calif.
Santa Fe, N.M.
Santa Monica, Calif.
Washington, D.C.