I intend to celebrate this piece of news with a pint of strawberries and a bunch of arugula: the number of farmers markets in the United States doubled from 1994 to 2004.

Of the Northwest states, Washington may have the greatest total number of markets (more than 90, according to this Seattle Times article (the USDA lists 87) with a record number, at least two dozen, expected to open in Seattle and King County this spring. Many have already opened.

The article cites signs that the King County area is in the early stage of a farmers-market boom, despite some resistance from shopkeepers in parts of Seattle where stores still sell produce outside their storefront groceries.

Oregon’s farmers markets are also booming, with a number of new locations this year and lots of creative additions to markets, from preserving and pickling workshops to health education classes. The Portland Farmers Market opens a full month earlier (starting this Saturday), expecting that if they open the shoppers will come. The state has more farmers markets per capita than Washington or Idaho (62 total, with 13 in Portland alone). Idaho has 26 farmers markets, according to the USDA; and BC has around 90.

  • Why do farmers markets matter? For consumers, it’s a no-brainer. We get greater access to produce that’s fresh, local, often organic, and often reasonably priced for the quality. Many local markets have become gathering places where you can hear music, try out unusual fruits and vegetables (kohlrabi, anyone?), pick out a nosegay of local flowers, and have a chat. And the money we spend directly benefits the community (fewer greenhouse gas emissions per carrot, no pesticides in runoff and soil, money kept in the local economy, and so on).

    And for growers, it’s, well, a market: an opportunity to sell their wares directly, to cut out the middleman, and to develop relationships with customers.

    It’s worth remembering, though, that markets are only one sliver of the story. A big threat to farming—especially farms on the urban fringe—is sprawl, which is still the Northwest’s predominant land use pattern. A case in point: Snohomish County, north of Seattle, just unveiled a new plan to help its small farmers, including an advisory group, a media relations and marketing program; even a proposal to create a year-round public market similar to Pike Place.

    The plan did not include, however, steps to help ease development pressures for farmland in the county, which has suffered a 26-percent loss of farmland in the past 20 years.

    And while Oregon’s cities have done a better job of curbing sprawl than Washington’s-especially rural sprawl—the recent passage of a property-rights law may erode that record.

    What can consumers do? Continue to support local agriculture by patronizing farmers markets and other methods of buying local produce (ie, community-supported agriculture). And pay close attention to the pubilc policy issues-particularly sprawl and climate change (see this post on drought)–that will affect the future of your community’s farms.

    P.S. Tim Steury, a guest contributor to this weblog and a small farmer himself, wrote a lovely piece for last month’s issue of Washington State Magazine on whether we should worry about the future of the family farm and rural communities.