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Published: Tuesday, 8/3/2010

Farmers' markets sustain Ohio communities


A good dinner can satisfy more than your appetite. Farmers' markets are a critical part of the local and sustainable food systems that nourish our bodies, communities, local economy, and environment.

If you visit the Toledo Farmers' Market on a Saturday, you'll see streams of families with wagons, baskets, and reusable bags brimming with local produce and fresh baked goods. Farmers chat with customers about recipes and farming practices.

There are bouquets of brightly colored flowers and stacks of heirloom tomatoes. Chefs hold workshops that show how to preserve the tastes of the season.

Such markets used to be the heart and soul of our communities. Today they are not only coming back but growing.

The Toledo Farmers' Market is among at least 213 farmers' markets in Ohio. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the number of farmers' markets in the United States grew from 1,755 in 1994 to 5,274 in 2009. Farmers' markets generated more than $1 billion in U.S. sales in 2006, the most recent year for which data are available.

Farmers markets are helping to preserve Ohio's family farms and rural heritage. That's vital; between 1950 and 2000, Ohio lost more than 6.9 million acres of farmland, nearly one-third of the state's agricultural land.

For beginning farmers, farmers' markets provide low-cost entry points to incubate their businesses. By selling directly to consumers, a new generation may be able to make a better living from farming.

Farmers markets' are integral to creating robust local economies. Customers who support them keep their food dollars in the community and support local businesses.

The markets are more than places to buy food, but destinations in their own right. Nearby nonfood businesses benefit from the markets' foot traffic.

In urban areas, farmers' markets help create vibrant neighborhoods by providing gathering places. Access to fresh, healthful food is limited in many urban communities. Farmers markets' enhance that access.

Shoppers interact personally with producers at farmers' markets, learning how their food is raised. Such relations and transparency aren't available at the grocery store.

Locally grown, organic fruits and vegetables are usually sold within 24 hours of harvest. Produce from across the country can't be that fresh, and it doesn't taste as good. By delivering fresh, delicious ingredients, farmers' markets can make converts even of children who are skeptical of vegetables.

Fresh food also is more nutritionally complete. Nutritional value declines, often dramatically, as time passes after harvest. Tree and vine-ripened fruits and vegetables have more vitamins and minerals, and taste better, than those that are picked green and ripened in transit or in warehouses.

This is National Farmers' Market Week, an opportunity to celebrate this vital segment of the agricultural economy and an increasingly central feature of our communities.

At the height of the season, now is a great time to experience Ohio's farmers' markets. They are helping farmers and consumers to reconnect and act together to build a sustainable food system, one meal at a time.

Carol Goland is executive director of the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association in Columbus. Ralph Schlatter owns Canal Junction Natural Meats and Farmstead Cheese in Defiance, a supplier to the Toledo Farmers' Market.

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