Farmers’ Market Innovations Make Healthy Food an Easy Option

Innovative ideas are make farmers markets better for shoppers seeking sustainably grown, in-season food.

Leah Zerbe June 18, 2012

There's often a throwback feel to farmers’ markets, where you can seek out the same heirloom vegetable varieties your great-grandmother adored. Old-school, heritage-breed chicken eggs? Yep, a true farmers’ market probably offers them. And while the farmers' market is a place where you can escape the creepy elevator music and prefabricated food of the modern day grocery store, vendors and market managers certainly haven't left innovation in the past. Today, farmers’ markets continue to cultivate tradition while tapping technology and offering new products to make shoppers' lives easier.

Here are some new and emerging farmers’ market ideas that are gaining steam across the country.

Mobile payment technology
Your favorite farmer at the market might be donning a straw hat and overalls, but more than ever, he or she might be harboring an iPhone one of the pockets, too. Many growers realize the farmers’ market shoppers often spend more when it's not "cash only," and are processing a customer's credit or debit card through an iPhone or other smartphone app.

On-site demonstrations
Nowadays, dish out a few bucks for local, organic greens and dairy products at a local farmers’ market, and you're liable to get an all-out education. Farmers’ markets are becoming learning hubs, featuring cooking demonstrations, wellness clinics, and even food preservation classes. (You can save major money by buying in-season produce in bulk at farmers’ markets.) For instance, the maker of the popular Ball canning jars joined with the Farmers Market Coalition to provide funds and equipment for canning seminars at the following markets this season:

• Agricultural Institute of Marin, San Rafael CA
• Associated Farmers Market of Cambridge LLC, Cambridge MA
• Bloomington Community Farmers Market, Bloomington IN
• Capital City Farmers, Montpelier VT
• Carrboro Farmers Market, Carrboro NC
• CitySeed Farmers Market, New Haven CT
• Columbia Farmers Market, Columbia MO
• Community Markets, Ossining NY
• Crossroads Bellevue Farmers Market, Bellevue WA
• Downtown Farmers Market, Salt Lake City UT
• Easton Farmers Market, Columbus OH
• Eden Good Inc - West End Farmers Market, Alexandria VA
• F2M Texas, Cedar Park & Round Rock TX
• Farmers Market Association of Toledo, Toledo OH
• Findlay Farmers Market, Cincinnati OH
• Forsyth Farmers Market, Savannah GA
• FRESHFARM Markets, Washington DC
• fresh52 Farmers & Artisan Market, Las Vegas NV
• Glenview Farmers Market, Glenview IL
• Greater Lehigh Chapter of Buy Fresh Buy Local, Easton PA
• Interstate Farmers Market, Portland OR
• Lancaster Market, Lancaster NY
• Larimer County Farmers Market, Fort Collins CO
• Lawrence Farmers Market, Lawrence KS
• Lincoln Haymarket Farmers Market, Lincoln NE
• Main Street Farmers Market, Statesboro GA
• Maple Grove Farmers Market, Maple Grove MN
• Market Central Inc., Charlottesville VA
• Market Square Farmers Market, Knoxville TN
• Memphis Farmers Market, Memphis TN
• Mill City Farmers Market, Minneapolis MN
• Minturn Market, Minturn CO
• Neighborhood Farmers Market Alliance, Seattle WA
• New Hope Community Farmers Market, New Hope MN
• Omaha Farmers Market, Omaha NE
• Oregon City Farmers Market, Oregon City OR
• Overland Park Farmers Market, Overland Park KS
• Peachtree Road Farmers Market, Atlanta GA
• Pearl Farmers Market, San Antonio TX
• Phoenixville Farmers Market, Phoenixville PA
• Plainfield Township Farmers Market, Grand Rapids MI
• Real Food Gulf Coast, Long Beach MS
• Red Stick Farmers Market (Project of BREADA), Baton Rouge LA
• Rochester Downtown Farmers Market, Rochester MN
• SFC Farmers Market, Austin TX
• St. Louis Regional Food Security Coalition/St. Louis Regional Farmers
Market Association, St. Louis MO
• Sustainable Nantucket, Nantucket MA
• Teller County Farmers Market Association, Woodland Park CO
• The Webb City Farmers Market, Webb City MO
• Williamsburg Farmers Market, Williamsburg VA

Facebook farm updates
You've probably heard of the make-believe Facebook farming game FarmVille, but the truth is, many real farmers and farmers' markets are creating Facebook accounts to keep fans in the know. For instance, you don't have to guess what produce, herbs, and flowers will be at this weekend's farmers' market. With a Facebook farm update, you can likely put together most of your shopping list before you even leave the house. Along these same lines, some farmers are also send text messages to members to keep them up-to-date on farmers’ market appearances and other info.

Tweeting the harvest
"A lot of farmers are Tweeting," explains author Lynn Byczynski, editor of Growing for Market. "That way, customers can hear about the latest on what they'll be bringing to market that week."

She says one good example of a social-media-savvy farm is Kilpatrick Family Farm in upstate New York, where growers Tweet, blog, and Facebook about crop offerings and market appearances. (Yes, they even find time to farm amidst such robust social media efforts!)

Growers going gourmet
Not all farmers’ market innovations involve technology. Some actually involve going back to the roots of farming. The return of older varieties prized for amazing taste—produce like gourmet fingerling potatoes, delicate skinned heirloom tomatoes, and purple carrots—are making a major comeback at farmers’ markets. "Growers have really expanded the range of crops they grow and sell locally," says Byczynski. "There is so much gourmet produce at farmers’ markets now, things you don't ever see at grocery stores. The quality of the products now is so much better than what it was 10 years ago."

Heirloom seedlings
Many farmers’ market vendors are not only selling produce they grow, but also helping customers start their own gardens. Byczynski says selling heirloom seedlings is becoming all the rage of farmers’ markets, which makes life easier for busy shoppers who don't have time to start seedlings (or may have forgotten) earlier in the year.

SNAP payments and gardens
Many farmers’ markets have also secured the necessary equipment to accept Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) payments. Stacy Miller, executive director of the Farmers Market Coalition, says the hope is that vendors and markets will soon be able to process SNAP benefits by iPhone for even more seamless transactions. For now, USDA's Farmers Markets search tool shows markets that are enabled to accept SNAP benefits, although that is based on self reporting. (Click "Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program" under "Forms of Payment Accepted" for participating markets.)

SNAP gardens
Customers receiving SNAP benefits (previously called food stamps) are also able to use the funds to buy vegetable or fruit plants for their own home gardens. The problem is, many people don't know about it. SNAPGardens.org is leading the charge to educate, and you may see some signs depicting this benefit at your farmers’ market.

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