How Congress Should Celebrate National Farmers Market Week

, senior analyst, Food and Environment | August 7, 2012, 10:27 am EDT
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This week is National Farmers Market Week, and—no surprise to anyone who knows me—I marked the occasion over the weekend by visiting two farmers markets in and around my neighborhood in Washington, DC. The 14th and U Farmers Market and the Dupont Circle FRESHFARM market are among the nearly 8,000 markets now operating in communities across the nation, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which released the results of its annual farmers market census on Friday.

The USDA data show steady growth of farmers markets over the past two decades, with the number of markets jumping nearly 10 percent just since 2011.

As UCS showed last year, farmers markets not only encourage healthy eating by providing sources of fresh produce and other mostly unprocessed foods, but they also can create new jobs and spur economic development in rural and urban communities alike. As I reported in November, economists at the USDA confirmed that farmers who sell produce locally create more jobs than those who don’t, and estimated that local food systems now account for $4.8 billion in annual sales.

Smart policies could boost local food systems even more

But those numbers could be even bigger. In the spring, my colleague Jeff O’Hara documented how public policies that favor production of livestock feed and processed food ingredients—especially federal subsidized crop insurance and credit programs—have prevented U.S. farmers from growing more fruits and vegetables for direct sale. Jeff’s report called on Congress to change the rules and level the playing field for local food farmers.

With members of Congress home now for their annual August recess, let’s recap their progress this summer toward a Farm Bill that invests in local food systems and healthy eating:

In the Senate, a bill passed on a bipartisan vote in late June included funding for a variety of rural development programs, including a program that would support local and regional food systems and new farmers, and one that would make it easier for organic farmers to get crop insurance. The Senate bill also would require recipients of crop and revenue insurance to take basic measures to protect soil and water resources.

Over in the House in July, however, things got grim. While the House bill did maintain some funding for farmers market promotion, it also slashed more than $16 billion in food assistance programs for the poor; weakened insurance programs for diversified, organic, and healthy food farmers; eliminated programs that assist organic farmers with certification; and deepened cuts to programs that help farmers protect soil, air, and water resources. The combined damage led one commentator to call the bill a “full-on disaster.”

It remains to be seen whether the House and Senate will be able to work things out before September 30, when the current Farm Bill expires.

I’ll talk more about ways the Farm Bill could help farmers—in particular, with drought conditions—later this week.

For now, I find that peaches make everything seem a little better, so go get yourself some of these before they’re gone:

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  • Karen M Heald

    Our Billings, MT Farmer’s Market has been going strong many years but there is an occasional vender who washes their berries and peaches with clorox solution to slow mold.
    Not easily determined until getting home to find second layer of berries or other fruit is moldy- and, the faint chlorine order lingering.
    99 % of the venders are accountable and the reason for any fly by nighters is that we don’t have climate for blackberries, raspberries, etc here on the high Mountain prairie. (Certainly not peaches 🙂
    We are blessed by every aspect of a Farmer’s Market here ; fresh food ethic and friendly people and a growing interest in expansion of resources such as greenhouses.

    • Albert

      If fruits and veggies aren’t already spoiling before you get them home they probably aren’t local or in season. Chlorine washes and greenhouses are an abomination. I watched Lonesome Dove so I should think Montana would be a locavore’s paradise. How can the Big Sky state, one of our few remaining national environmental treasures permit anything but the most naturally occurring foods to be marketed and consumed? Are Montanans becoming soft?

    • Karen, thanks for reading. I’m glad to hear you have a good market there in Billings. As everywhere, most people do the right thing but there can still be a bad apple (or peach) in the mix. The great thing about farmers markets is the inherent accountability–you can get to know the farmers and their practices, and then choose who to buy from accordingly. Can’t do that at the supermarket.

  • Shelby

    A couple weeks ago I bought food from some vendor at the farmers market and my kids got sick as hell. When I went back the next weekend to tell the lady she got really angry and cursed at me. The kids are feeling better, no thanks to her but I can’t help wondering how many other people she sickened. How can I get my money back from a nasty farmers market vendor who doesn’t care? They don’t even give out receipts. Pretty shady, all things considered.

    • Shelby, thanks for your comment. I’m sorry to hear your kids got sick. Did you report their illnesses to your local health department? Following up on reported outbreaks and testing suspected foods is really the only way to positively identify the cause of a foodborne illness, and even then it’s very difficult. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control estimates that foodborne pathogens sicken 48 million people–that’s one in six Americans–every year ( And they can arise in a variety of settings, including supermarkets, restaurants, and home preparation.

      There’s no reason to believe that farmers markets are more susceptible than any other kind of food establishment, or any less–it’s all a matter of good practices. With local markets selling food from small farms, however, it should be easier to trace and stop outbreaks. Remember the E. coli outbreak associated with fresh bagged spinach in 2006 (, Because the epicenter of that outbreak was a very large operation that packed and distributed spinach to retailers all over the country, the problem spread to 26 states, sickening more than 200 people and killing three before it could be stopped. A more localized food system could help prevent such widespread food safety problems.

      Anyway, I’m glad your family is okay, and thanks for reading.

    • John

      Hey Shelby,
      Based on my experiences, bully’s like the lady who sold you the bad fruit are usually trying to hide something that they’ve done wrong and know it. While she may just be a bit ‘touched in the head,’ I’ve seen this intimidation tactic used before, typically by compulsive liars. Hopefully you see this through with your county or state health department Ag & Markets or possibly environmental conservation as this could be pesticide application/poisoning issue (as opposed to food-born disease) as Karen suggests. While farmers are generally very proud of their products, any normal (farmer or otherwise) person’s first concern would/should be for your kids. Glad your babies are better.

    • Dan

      “How can I get my money back from a nasty farmers market vendor who doesn’t care?”

      If I was selling at the same farmer’s market, and you told me that story, I would give you your money to spite her, and expect that you would patronize me instead in the future. One purchase by one customer on one day can’t be that much money, and I think you would bring your friends to my stand from then on.
      I expect you would spend the money at my stand or someone else next to me, who may come to me afterwards and buy something else. That’s what local markets should be like, I think. Sooner or later, the bad ones would be out of business and maybe sell their land to someone who can care for it properly.