Over the past decade, farmers markets have increased 71%, U.S. Department of Agriculture figures show. In July, the department reported that nearly 4,900 markets operate nationwide, up about 5% from the end of last year.
Factors driving the surge include a growing desire by consumers to know more about food sources, concern over the environment and an increased sense of community, agriculture experts, farmers and customers say.
"It's perfect for us," Deputy Agriculture Secretary Kathleen Merrigan says. "We want to find ways to help people live healthier lifestyles and eat more fruits and vegetables, and increase the economic prosperity for farmers."
Farmers markets got a high-profile boost this month when first lady Michelle Obama gave a speech at the opening of a market in Washington. Obama has made locally grown produce part of her push to get Americans to eat healthier by planting her own garden at the White House.
Lauren Carey, manager of the Peachtree Road Farmers Market in Atlanta, says it has grown exponentially since it opened in 2007. "We've had phenomenal response," she says.
Many states report similar growth:
•Massachusetts. The number of markets rose from 160 last year to 199 now, a one-year record, says Kate Plourd, spokeswoman for state Department of Agricultural Resources.
•Illinois. The state has about 280 markets "and that's growing," says Delayne Reeves, a marketing representative with the Illinois Department of Agriculture. "We'll probably be close to 300 by next year," Reeves says.
•Utah. Farmers markets jumped from 20 last year to 41 today, says Larry Lewis, spokesman for the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food.
•California. Dan Best of the California Federation of Certified Farmers' Markets says certified markets in the state have soared from 429 in 2004 to 645 today. Most of that growth came in the past three years.
Merrigan said the income from markets is "a pretty significant factor" for small farmers who are the primary vendors, although USDA statistics show that half of market vendors nationally bring in less than $500 a month.
Scares over food safety and worries about how trucking produce long distances adds to global warming have helped spur interest, Reeves says. She adds that the down economy has made people "more home-centered."
Tony Wood of Sweet Magnolia Farm in Byram, Miss., markets his vegetables at the state-sponsored market in Jackson. "Everything we bring, we sell," he says.