Anyone skeptical about the depth and speed of the state’s economic recovery can at least take some small comfort in one segment that is growing at a rapid pace.
Farmers markets, which began popping up a few years ago as modest affairs in a few North Shore cities, are now larger and more widespread than ever. Officials in Salem and Beverly report robust growth, and organizers of the newest market, in Swampscott, said they did enough business last year to return with confidence this spring.
“We based (the decision) on what our vendors had to say at the end of the season,” Swampscott market manager Kim Fillenworth told reporter Ethan Forman. “We went back to vendors and asked them, ‘Did you make any money? Did you feel you made enough money to qualify to come back?’”
The answer was a resounding yes.
Even with the number of markets increasing every year, the saturation point seems to be far off.
Last year, there were 255 summer farmers markets and 40 winter markets across Massachusetts, according to the state. That’s up from 167 summer markets and no winter markets in 2008.
A large part of the growth can be traced to a renewed appetite for fresh, locally grown fruit and produce. That change is no fad: The number of farmers markets in the United States increased 54 percent between 2008 and 2011, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Even big business is taking note.
A recent study by the agricultural lender Rabobank noted, “Local buying opportunities, such as farmers markets and roadside stands, have long existed, but in more recent years, have gained popularity with consumers who want a better understanding and connection to their food. Such interest has changed the competitive landscape of the U.S. produce industry.”
Local markets offer more than fruits and vegetables. Fish and meat vendors have set up shop, as have non-food businesses offering such items as candles, soaps, jewelry, cut flowers and organic pet treats. Many now offer locally grown wine.
It’s not just good news for local consumers. The markets have been a boon for local farmers, as well.
“They really have taken over big-time,” said Bill Clark, whose family farm has run a farm stand for generations, and who just recently entered the farmers market arena.
“Last year, we doubled our sales in farmers markets (during) 10 hours a week versus 64 hours a week at the farm stand, so its a no-brainer for me from a cost standpoint,” he said.
Clark said the wide range of offerings in a farmers market helps everyone doing business there.
“Everyone has their specialty, everyone has their strengths, and they bring all their strengths together,” he said.
Popular farmers markets, like those in Beverly, located near the train station, and Salem, which opened yesterday in Derby Square, also draw people downtown during the week, giving other local businesses a boost.
There is a lot to like about the recent growth: Local residents have access to fresh local food, farms and other small local businesses have better access to customers, and businesses are finding that working together increases everyone’s profit margins. Here’s hoping the trend continues.