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Farmers' markets are growing faster than zucchini

Anyone who squeezes through a crowded farmers' market knows that now is prime time for locally grown produce. The summer's bounty — sweet corn, squash, eggplant, melons, peaches, berries, tomatoes — has arrived with the intensity of a thunderstorm. Everything looks inviting, even the okra (those green pods that when boiled become a dish some wouldn't touch with a 10-foot fork).

Nationally and locally, the number of farmers' markets has grown faster than a runaway zucchini vine. There are now at least 7,175 farmers' markets in the United States, according to the just-released 2011 directory compiled by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. This represents an increase of 17 percent from last year. We say "at least" because the USDA reports there are 77 such markets in Maryland, while the Maryland Department of Agriculture counts 137. Given the choice between the tallies, we will go with the local figure. (The USDA does not seem to know, for example, about the Wednesday afternoon market in the Mount Washington Whole Foods parking lot. But the Maryland website does.)

Beyond debating the numbers, there is little doubt that throughout America, more farmers are selling their products directly to consumers. Already well established in the far West and the Northeast sections of America (California leads the nations in farmers' markets with 729, followed by New York, with 520) the farmers' market concept has spread to other regions. Indiana saw 37 percent growth in farmers' markets last year, Michigan was up 30 percent, and the number of markets in Pennsylvania grew by 31 percent, according to the USDA.

But the state that experienced the biggest growth was — wait for it — Alaska. There, in the land of the midnight sun and giant cabbages (one state fair winner weighed in at 73 pounds), the number of markets shot up 46 percent. That is a lot of cole slaw. Maryland farmers' markets have grown at a pace of 10 percent a year for the last five years.

Not all farmers markets are bustling; the ones in small towns can be markedly low key. Yet they do bring some vitality to the streets and serve as community gathering spots. Moreover, since an increasing number of markets accept coupons and vouchers from nutritional support programs such as Food Stamps, they can offer fresh, healthful fare to consumers of all income levels. A few also sell really good bacon.

Most farmers' markets shut down during the winter, but a handful of hardy merchants, like those at Baltimore's 32nd Street market in Waverly, are open year round. In addition, an increasing number of brick-and-mortar establishments are selling regional fare. The recent openings of the Baltimore Food Co-op in Baltimore's Remington neighborhood and a Fresh Market in Towson are indications that grocers feel the interest in local, sustainable goods is not limited to the salad days of summer.

Blessed with a bountiful harvest, Marylanders can now, like the grasshopper in Aesop's fable, enjoy the delights of the season. And a few, like the industrious ant in the story, can start turning those August tomatoes into sauce that will brighten the dark nights of winter.

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