THE DETAILS: The report, recently issued by an agriculture economist at Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), calculates that reauthorizing the Federal Farmers Market Promotion Program in the 2012 Farm Bill alone could create more than 13,000 jobs in the next five years, all while bringing healthier food options—including in-season, organic food—to communities, potentially lowering healthcare costs and bolstering local and regional economies. "At the moment, the majority of [Farm Bill subsidies] flow to genetically modified corn and soy, and these crops, for the most part, produce processed foods that aren't good for our health, and production is extremely harmful to our environment," explains health and wellness expert Jillian Michaels. "What we need to do is reverse the Farm Bill so that our tax dollars go towards subsidizing organic food. This way healthy, nutritious food would be significantly more affordable and accessible to the masses."
USDA data suggests that more than 136,000 farms are already selling their food directly to consumers. And Jeffrey O'Hara, PhD, UCS economist and author of the report, "Market Forces: Creating Jobs Through Public Investment in Local and Regional Food Systems," points out that family farmers are doing this with little government assistance. Shifting just a small portion of subsidies to farmer's market programs could create tens of thousands of jobs, the report concludes.
In addition, here are other ways that farmer's markets can continue to aid local economies:
1. Accepting WIC cash vouchers. As of late 2009, only 21 states allowed farmers to be vendors within the WIC cash value voucher program. To stimulate local food systems, states should make using vouchers for healthy food easier for low-income people.
2. Boosting bonus-incentive programs. Some government, foundation, and advocacy programs double Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits for buying food at farmer's market, giving an even bigger incentive to shop for healthy food that's locally produced.
3. Participating in farm-to-school programs. The recent Child Nutrition Reauthorization mandates $40 million in funding over an eight-year period to help schools and nonprofits arrange to purchase food from local farmers.
WHAT IT MEANS: More than 90 percent of farmer's markets offer fresh produce—often organic. And they serve as community hubs, places to learn healthy cooking, and venues for local musicians. While the community spirit of farmer's markets is certainly important, recent reports show they could offer more tangible benefits as strong local economic drivers, particularly in these tough financial times.
Also, funding farmer's markets helps build more sustainable local economies that produce healthier options for people.
Here's some more proof, courtesy of the Farmers Market Coalition:
• Vermont farmer's markets yielded $8 million in gross sales to producers in 2010, up 14 percent from 2009.
• 21 farmer's markets in Oklahoma led to an increase of 113 jobs, $5.9 million in direct and indirect economic output, and a $2.2 million increase in income.
• 152 farmer's markets in Iowa provided 576 jobs, $59.4 million in economic output, and a $17.8 million increase in income.
• The Crescent City Farmer's Market in New Orleans generated $9.88 million in total economic impact in 2010.
• The Hunterdon Land Trust Farmer's Market in New Jersey has an annual regional economic impact of $2.6 million.
• Twenty-six Mississippi farmer's markets created a total economic impact of $1.6 million, $213,720 in wages, 15.88 part-time jobs, and $16,000 in state and local taxes.
And while we're talking economics, researchers have proved that farmer's markets spark spending at neighboring businesses, too. Analyzing the Easton Farmers market in Pennsylvania, economists found that 70 percent of farmer's market customers went on to shop at nearby businesses, collectively spending more than $25,000 additional dollars a week. At the Emporia Farmer's Market in Kansas, the city generated $36,000 in sales tax between 2003 and 2010.
Here are 3 important ways to make the most of your farmer's market:
# 1: Check the Web.
Tap online resources to find local farmer's markets in your neck of the woods:
#2: Go high-tech with your farmer.
Tap farmer's market innovations, such as farm and market Facebook and Twitter accounts, to keep in regular contact with your growers. It's an easy way to get first dibs on fresh produce, check crop availability, and plan your shopping list and meals before market day.
#3: Tune into timing and buy in bulk.
For some popular veggies and fruits, it pays to pass by the earliest crop or buy most of your order a little later. For example, the first tomatoes of the season may be more expensive than the ones that ripen a few weeks later, simply because they’re in such high demand. If you want to save some money—and can stand to wait for a week or two—hold off and the prices will drop. When it does become more affordable, buy in bulk for additional savings, and preserve any extra food that you can't eat.
For more farmer's market tips, check out How to Find True Organic Food at the Farmer's Market.