Peter Wood, a spokesman for the department’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), which organizes the market, said the enterprise draws around 2,000 visitors each Friday during peak market season. Customers include federal employees, the Washington, D.C., community and tourists. Wood said vendors travel an average 100 miles to participate.
Farmers markets, which feature local food and often a variety of organic products, are becoming more and more popular, AMC says. The one outside the USDA headquarters – which this year is honoring America’s military on opening day -- is one of more than 8,100 registered with the USDA. That figure is up more than 17 percent just since 2010.
“The trend is for increased demand for local food from farmers markets,” Wood said. “And we’ve seen that growing demand for local food has helped rural communities create jobs and revitalize local economies.”
Susan Coss, public relations director at the San Francisco-based Center for Urban Education About Sustainable Agriculture, said when the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market began in the city 20 years ago there were only two farmers markets in the area. Now there are more than 30. She said the demand for locally and seasonally grown produce helps support small producers and has increased the demand for organic and sustainable produce.
Tyler Wegmeyer, owner of Wegmeyer Farms in Loudoun County, Virginia, has participated in farmers markets for more than 10 years. He and his wife have travel up to 45 minutes to markets in northern Virginia and the Washington, D.C. area. Wegmeyer has seen markets grow from weekend to weeklong events.
“At the grocery store you are grabbing something off the shelf, while at a farmers market you shake the hand of the grower and learn about the product,” Wegmeyer said. “For a lot of people it’s their first and only experience with agriculture. That’s why farmers markets are important.”
Wegmeyer said many people now want to buy food close to home and understand how it is grown. Farmers markets allowed him and his family to expand their farm to a self-pick business that includes strawberries and pumpkins. Many of Wegmeyer’s farmers market customers now visit his farm.
USDA provides funding to expand farmers markets and increase access to locally grown products. Grants range from $15,000 to $100,000. This year, the department is also providing about $4 million in equipment, including I-phones, printers and Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) devices, to help farmers increase their sales to participants in the Supplementary Nutrition Assistance Program, or what used to be called Food Stamps.
The equipment is being distributed by the National Association of Farmers Markets Nutrition Program (NAFMNP). Phil Blaloc, the group’s executive director, says he’s receiving about 20 applications a day for the sets and 480 have been distributed since March. More than 300 applications are in the approval process.
The machines – which marry an I-phone, a printer and an EBT reader -- allow vendors to accept debit, credit and SNAP purchases, helping farmers take the next step in product marketing. SNAP participants have an incentive to shop at farmers markets, as they can receive matching “bonus dollars” that increase their buying power for fruits and vegetables. The program is funded by private foundations, non-profits and local governments.
SNAP benefits contribute to a positive financial impact on farmers markets, according to the 2013 SNAP Healthy Food Incentives Evaluation. Data from 349 farmers markets showed consumers redeemed more than $1.47 million in SNAP benefits at these markets. Older folks can also use vouchers from the Senior Farmers' Market Nutrition Program (SFMNP). The new Farm Bill provides $19.1 million for SFMNP, according to the USDA.
Local farmers markets can be found through the USDA National Farmers Market Directory.
The market at USDA will be open from 9:30 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. every Friday through Nov. 21, except for July 4, weather permitting.
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