In the early 1980s, Mark Toigo began making weekly trips from his family's farm to farmers markets with a pickup truck full of peaches, cherries, apricots and, as the summer faded, apples and pears. On a good day, he'd come home with $1,000.
The produce he took to the farmers markets was "probably 1 percent of everything that came off the farm," he says. But it accounted for "as much or more money than all the rest of the crops put together."
A quarter-century later, as Toigo sends trucks full of fruit to the Arlington Farmers Market, elsewhere in Virginia and Baltimore, it's still true. "When we sell apples, I'm lucky to get eight to 10 cents a pound for premium fruit" from processors, he says. "But I'll make a dollar and a half a pound selling at farmers markets."
All over America, farmers markets are saving family farms. "It's fairly clear there's no future for our family in traditional agriculture," says Toigo, a south-central Pennsylvania fruit and vegetable farmer. "If it weren't for farmers markets, there never would have been a chance for me and thousands of other people like me to farm."
Like Toigo, a growing number of American farmers are staying in business by selling directly to consumers. In 2000, the last year for which figures are available, 19,000 farmers were selling their produce only at farmers markets, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Marketing Service.
Why? Farmers make more money selling retail. They can set their own prices. They can sell a much higher percentage of their crop -- including the bruised or less than perfectly shaped peaches and tomatoes and potatoes that supermarkets reject. They can have more control over their finances.
And with more money, farmers can maintain and even upgrade their farms. They can send their children to college. They can hold onto their land and livelihood, paying their bills and resisting pressure from developers who covet their land.
Chip Planck, a Loudoun County farmer who has sold exclusively at farmers markets for more than two decades, says the markets make it possible to maintain his property as farmland. "It's not so much that developers would have forced us to sell out," he says. "Developers don't force anyone to do anything. It's that we would have had to earn income otherwise to pay the mortgage."
He finds selling at farmers markets "greatly satisfying." "You hear [customers'] appreciation, their cooking ideas, the things you do right or wrong," says the vegetable and small-fruit grower who farms with his wife, Susan. "It's valuable for our workers, too, that the things they have actually planted, weeded and picked are theirs to present and get compliments on."
It wasn't always that way.
The post-World War II rush to convenience foods wasn't fertile ground for the leisurely, neighborly shopping style of farmers markets. New refrigerated trucks ferried oranges from Florida or tomatoes from California across the country, making local produce less necessary. Then, in the 1960s and early 1970s, an increasing number of women entered the workforce and had little time to shop more than once a week.
If farmers markets were to thrive, there had to be a revolution. Consumers had to value and seek out fresh, local seasonal produce. That began to happen in the 1970s, with restaurants such as Alice Waters's Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif., and Nora Pouillon's Restaurant Nora in Washington leading the way.
In 1976, two developments gave farmers markets a big boost. Congress passed the Farmer to Consumer Direct Marketing Act to encourage and support farmers who wanted to sell directly to consumers.
And in New York, a new Green Market instantly attracted customers and national attention, inspiring many small farmers to look for similar outlets. "We wished something like that existed here," says Jim Frazee, who with three friends had bought a 75-acre fruit farm in the same part of Pennsylvania as Toigo. An article in The Washington Post alerted them to the Arlington Farmers Market, which started that same year.
Over time, the number of U.S. farmers markets has grown from 499 in 1946 to 2,863 in 2000. Last year, the USDA counted more than 3,700. About 170 markets are in Maryland, Virginia and the District.
Some of the crops farmers raise for these markets are different from the traditional grains. At farmers markets they sell fruits, vegetables and herbs, which are more labor intensive but more lucrative.
"At any market, you can see vendors who have been conventional farmers raising soybeans and corn," says Neil Hamilton, director of the agricultural law center and a law professor at Drake University in Des Moines. "But they find they can make the same money from a half-acre of strawberries."
Hamilton finds that true at his own 10-acre farm, where he is raising about 1,500 leeks in a 5-by-70-foot bed. "I'll make more money off that one bed of leeks than my dad would have made off an acre of field corn," he says.
Which raises the question, are the fruits and vegetables at farmers markets more expensive than those at supermarkets? Usually they are. In part, that's because it's what the market will bear -- customers are willing to pay for quality. But primarily, the produce at farmers markets is fresher. It was usually picked within 24 hours -- and few supermarkets can match that.
"I think the product is completely different," says Frazee, whose Twin Springs Fruit Farm sells at 14 area markets. "That's why we see the same customers week in and week out. They want the quality and the consistency."
Errol Bragg is the USDA official who watches over farmers markets. "We know from recent studies that farmers market consumers are interested in the freshness and quality of the products, and the convenience," he says. "The markets also provide an opportunity to meet, talk and interact with farmers to find out more about the product -- where and how they are grown, and even share some menu discussion."
In recent years, shopping at farmers markets has become a popular pastime.
On a sunny Saturday morning at the Arlington Farmers Market across from the county courthouse, shoppers -- some of whom lined up before the 8 a.m. opening -- are searching for their favorite heirloom tomatoes, the finest-looking cherries and the best early basil.
Like many others, this farmers market offers more than produce -- fresh pastas, artisanal cheeses, organic eggs, meat from grass-fed cattle. The effect is somewhere between a giant roadside stand and a fancy food store.
"This is how we decide what to cook for dinner," says Karen Welch of Arlington, who has shopped at the market for 10 years. "We love it," says her friend Dan De Simone. "It's like having the farm come to you."
House Agriculture Committee Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte (R-Va.) notes that "the vast majority of food is still purchased in traditional ways, but shopping at farmers markets is growing rapidly." The markets "help the farmer's bottom line and connect people directly with the person who produced their food."
Such as Toigo, who doles out shopping guidance along with his fruits and vegetables, advising a customer, "If you want a ripe nectarine, go for a dull color."
By the time he finishes up at the market, heads back to Pennsylvania and readies a fresh supply of fruit for the next day's market, he will have worked close to an 18-hour day. But the money he's brought in ("Outstanding for one day," he says, "but like all businesses you must average it out throughout the year") and the contact with his customers will have been worth the effort.
"There will always be a place for the large agribusiness," he says. "But this is the only way traditional family farms will survive."
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