|SEPTEMBER 15, 2011 --
With more farmers markets springing up across Connecticut, people are flocking to "buy local."
The "grow local, buy local" trend has arrived in a big way. In the past 20 years there has been a five-fold increase in the number of markets, according to the state Department of Agriculture. This year the department reported more than 120 markets in 90 towns.
"In 1986 the state had 22 farmers markets," said Rick Macsuga, marketing representative for the Department of Agriculture. "Now we have about 125."
It's also a nationwide trend.
In 2009, the U.S. Agriculture Department counted 4,800 certified markets, but in 2010 that number rose by 16 percent. In 2010 the department reported 6,132 markets in the country.
Dennis Barry, a member of the volunteer committee who helps organize Meriden's farmers market, said that when the market first began years ago only two farmers sold produce. But now, with its relocation to the downtown Hub at State and East Main streets, it has expanded to hosting about seven vendors each Saturday from 8 a.m. to noon.
"The same two farmers participate in the market and their business has doubled this year," he said. "We have a little shy of 300 people come each week."
Wallingford has also seen an increase in traffic at Saturday's farmers market.
"It's very well-received," said Liz Landow, director and marketing manager of Wallingford Center Inc. "From June until our start in July we get so many calls asking when it will start."
The Wallingford market is held from 9 a.m. to noon at Johanna Manfreda Fishbein Park. When it started a dozen years ago, there were four or five vendors. Since then it's expanded to host around 35 craftsmen and farmers.
Sue Haag, owner of Lovely Lathers, on Center Street in Wallingford, has been a vendor at Wallingford's market for the past five years.
"People like to buy local because it's fresher and because they know where it's all being grown," Haag said.
Another reason more people may be flocking to town markets is a heightened awareness of nutrition.
"You can get the freshest produce at markets because it's picked that morning. In fact, some will even get a delivery mid-morning," Barry said.
Because markets sell fresh fruits and vegetables, the Community Health Center and MidState Medical Center decided to help sponsor Meriden's market as a way of encouraging people to eat healthy.
Pam Cretella, MidState's communications manager, said the hospital donated $1,000 to Meriden's market.
"Our participation is really in support of our mission statement to improve the health and wellbeing of the people in the community that we serve," she said.
Some farmers markets also try to counter the notion that healthy food is expensive.
To attract more customers, some markets now accept WIC food subsidy coupons for Women, Infants and Children, and the Senior Farmer's Market Nutrition Program, or SFMNP.
WIC clients and those who receive the senior program assistance are given five $3 checks to buy fresh fruits and vegetables each market season.
"The numbers of people using food stamps at markets is finally starting to look good," Macsuga said. "It's still a small percentage, but it's getting better and better every year."
Farmers markets in Meriden and Southington accept WIC and SFMNP coupons. This is also the first year that Meriden's market is accepting Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program stamps. Wallingford has not yet begun accepting food stamps.
"There are 5,700 people who get food stamps and we wanted to reach out to them," said Barry, of the Meriden market. "Getting SNAP recipients to come to farmers markets is a slow process, but we've tried every marketing outlet we could think of to get the word out."
Despite the growing popularity of local markets, some farmers are finding it hard to make a profit because of all the competition.
"They have about 26 weeks to make a year's worth of money," Macsuga said. "Within three or four weeks if it isn't off the ground, they're done. We see markets come and go each year."