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.