Gina Humphreys has been in the espresso business for 15 years, managing coffee bars from coast to coast. But lately she has been getting more excited about carrot juice and salad greens than cappuccino.
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, meat from grass-fed cows and pigs, goat milk and cheese, flowers, local honey and maple syrup, fruits and vegetables.
"I love this so much, I can't even tell you," said Humphreys, who grows organic vegetables on a slice of her father's 70-acre farm in Pennsville, N.J.
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 various factors: less tolerance for bland meat and produce that some consumers associate with big factory farms; more demand for the 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.
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 more healthful and tasty.
"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 more healthful school lunches.
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 who live within a 21/2-hour drive. Most of their farms range in size from 10 acres 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."
The market demand for locally grown produce in Pennsylvania could increase to the point that it outstrips the supply, said Cheryl Cook of the state Agriculture Department. In response, the state has announced initiatives including "PA Grows," which helps farmers get 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.
Farmers more recently have branched out to grass-fed cows and sheep, 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 such as Simpson have proved 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.
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."