The benefits of supporting farmers’ markets go beyond individual health to something larger: the well-being of an entire community. Prosperous farms help ensure green spaces between towns and cities and conserve land for agriculture. For many small growers, a thriving local market offers the opportunity to make a decent living from farming, pay their workers a fair wage and plan for the future. At farmers’ markets, they can sell directly to customers, earning close to 80 cents on a dollar, on average, compared to just 20 cents if they sell to food distributors who ship their produce to grocery chains.
In large metropolitan areas, such as the San Francisco Bay Area, Chicago or New York City, many small farmers sell exclusively through farmers’ markets. They wouldn’t be able to survive as small business owners without them. For example, my friend Mr. Rodriguez began selling his organic strawberries at our farmers’ market and soon we began offering his spectacular berries to patients at our 19 Northern California hospitals. Now, each season he provides 130 dozen pints per week and, to do that, he has had to hire five new farm workers.
Also, when you buy from a farm or a farmers’ market, you are helping ensure that the farm is economically viable and that local produce will be available year after year. I can’t speak for everyone, but for me it’s worth a lot to know that every spring I can help myself to several different varieties of exquisitely ripe and sweet berries, and that early fall will arrive with fresh figs and beautiful heirloom tomatoes by the basketful. Small farms have played a leading role in reintroducing many unusual varieties of fruits and vegetables that were virtually abandoned when large-scale agriculture came along. Among these so-called heirloom varieties are hundreds of different kinds of apples, pears and tomatoes that were in danger of being lost, fruits and vegetables you would hardly ever find at supermarkets.
And of course there’s the simple fact that these local markets are just plain fun. They are places where people can come together to shop, talk, sit on a bench and watch the world go by, listen to music and exchange recipes. Local markets are as old as the oldest human settlements, and they have always been about more than just the buying and selling of goods. They are the heart and soul of a community. With the rise of big-box stores and shopping malls, we’ve unfortunately lost that feature in many parts of the country.
But today it’s being recaptured in the growing number of farmers’ markets cropping up in towns and cities large and small, with their colorful stalls and handwritten signs, their bins of hand-picked produce that was often harvested just hours ago.