Farmers markets are integral to Ohio’s communities, consumers

By Carol Goland and Louis Rorimer

The Cleveland Plain Dealer

Sunday, August 1, 2010

A good meal can satisfy more than just the appetite.

Farmers markets are a critical part of the local and sustainable food systems that nourish our bodies, our communities and our environment.

When you visit one of North Union Farmers Market’s locations, you’ll see streams of families with wagons, baskets and reusable bags brimming with colorful local produce, fresh baked goods and flowers, and farmers under white shade tents chatting with customers about recipes, as well as chef demonstrations and workshops.

North Union is among at least 213 farmers markets in Ohio. Since the USDA began tracking this data, the number of markets in the United States has tripled, up from 1,755 in 1994 to 5,274 in 2009. Nationally, these farmers markets generated more than $1 billion in sales in 2006.

National Farmers Market Week, which is Aug. 1 through 7, gives us an opportunity to celebrate this important segment of the agricultural economy and an increasingly central feature of our communities.

In contrast, between 1950 and 2000, Ohio lost more than 6.9 million acres of farmland, representing nearly one-third of Ohio’s agricultural land. One way that farmers markets are helping to preserve Ohio’s family farms and rural heritage is by providing low-cost entry points for beginning farmers to incubate their businesses. By selling directly to consumers, a new generation of farmers may be able to make a better living from farming.

When our nation was in its infancy, almost every municipality provided a place for farmers to bring their produce to meet the weekly needs of townsfolk. That tradition died as refrigeration and transportation made central markets obsolete. By the time we were coming of age on our farms, we took it for granted that small-scale farming was uneconomical because there was no way to get produce and livestock directly to consumers. That has now begun to change.

Snake Hill Farm began selling at North Union’s Shaker Square market 15 years ago. We took in only $12 the first day, but have seen steady growth each year as the market has grown. Because of the markets, Snake Hill Farm has always been able to receive fair prices for as much as we can produce, giving us hope that we will be able to preserve our land.

Farmers markets are integral in creating robust local economies. Customers who support farmers markets are keeping their food dollars in the local community. Farmers markets are again becoming more than just a place to buy food, a community destination in their own right, supporting non-food businesses nearby. In communities where access to fresh, healthful food is limited, farmers markets are beginning to help make such access easier.

Farmers markets deliver some of the freshest, most delicious ingredients available for food lovers. Locally grown organic fruits and vegetables are usually sold within 24 hours of being harvested. Fresh food is more nutritionally complete because nutritional value declines as time passes after harvest.

At the height of the season, now’s a great time to experience one of Ohio’s farmers markets, which are helping farmers and consumers reconnect and together build a sustainable food system — one meal at a time.

Goland is the executive director of the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association. Rorimer is with Snake Hill Farm L.P. in Geauga County and serves on the board of trustees of North Union Farmers Market.