LSA alumni who have played an integral part in the rise of farmers’ markets across the country give us a firsthand look at where farmers’ markets have been and the possibilities for what’s next. Eating local might be the latest craze, but is there a tipping point at which it’s no longer beneficial? These alumni discuss the distance from farm to fork.

“We want to create the consumer expectation that people can know where their food comes from," cofounder Karl Rosaen (U-M ’03, M.E. ’04) says.

The Ann Arbor startup sprang from a blend of personal and professional motives. Karl and Cara Rosaen (’03) grew up in Ann Arbor and aspired to get back home from Silicon Valley, so they began cooking up a plan that could help them relocate.

“I thought what would be the coolest thing I could do is a startup around something I really care about,” says Karl, who read Michael Pollan’s food manifesto The Omnivore’s Dilemma and felt inspired to tie his tech skills with his new food passion.

Today, Real Time Farms includes map-based directories of farms, food artisans, restaurants, and farmers’ markets, all aimed to help people see “food isn’t just a commodity. We want to help people fall in love again with what they’re eating,” Cara says.

“For many people, farmers’ markets are where the desire for transparency starts,” Karl says. “A farmer can passionately tell you why their tomatoes are different.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Directory of Farmers’ Markets listed more than 7,000 farmers’ markets in 2011, up 17 percent from 2010 and four times as many as when the USDA did its first count in 1994.

University of Michigan alumni including the Rosaens are helping fuel that dramatic growth, motivated by concerns ranging from the nation’s obesity epidemic to the practices of large-scale industrialized farming, as well as the passion of foodies seeking better-tasting ingredients and the desire for a more personal shopping experience.

A Market Boom

Ruth Goldway (’65) helped pioneer the modern farmers’ market expansion in the United States.

Goldway was a young mother in California in the 1970s when a huge jump in food prices sparked protests around the country, largely by housewives. Goldway was energized and got involved in political advocacy, quickly moving from the price of food to the quality of food, such as calling for better food labeling.

In spite of the abundance of fruits and vegetables grown in California, Goldway learned that regulations established during the Great Depression to protect farmers were preventing farmers from selling produce directly to consumers.

Goldway first pushed for Governor Jerry Brown’s administration to pass legislation enabling farmers’ markets in 1978, then she became mayor of Santa Monica in 1981 and helped start what has grown into the four-day-a-week Santa Monica Farmers’ Markets.

“It became a community scene and a gourmet food scene,” Goldway recalls. Chefs developed relationships with farmers, and other cities followed suit with similar markets. Young people who traveled abroad wanted more of the open-air markets and cafés they saw in Europe.

California Certified Farmers’ Markets now includes more than 700 weekly markets.

“It wasn’t rocket science to come to these ideas. It was commonplace around the world for hundreds of years,” Goldway says.

Alumna Ruth Goldway helped launch the popular Santa Monica Farmers’ Market, which opened in July 1981. Today, more than 9,000 people shop the market on Wednesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays, year-round, making this one of the nation’s largest farmers' markets. Market-goers may also attend a variety of workshops with topics such as water conservation and waste reduction. Photo: David Young-Wolff/Stone/Getty Images

Micro Leads to Macro

Mary Holmes (’70) wasn’t inspired by European markets but by Ann Arbor’s own farmers’ market. When she moved to Cleveland in 1990, she was surprised to find it lacked a farmers’ market, so she set about starting a nonprofit organization to establish one.

“I began to understand why it was so hard to find farmers,” Holmes says, when she learned much of Ohio’s farmland had been sold off for real estate development, and those farmers who remained primarily grew large-scale commercial row crops like corn and soybeans rather than direct-to-consumer produce. “I started reading and understanding what had happened to agriculture nationally.”

Leading the North Union Farmers Market, Ohio’s largest and most successful farmers’ market, put Holmes on the path to developing a course she teaches at Case Western Reserve called Food, Farming, and Economic Prosperity. In that class, Holmes aims to get undergraduates interested in topics like the funding priorities of the federal farm bill and what it takes to raise enough food to feed the world’s growing population.

She prompts her students to think critically about the American food system, asking them, “Are we really so lucky that we’ve gotten rid of all these farmers?” and discussing the industrialization of farming, including moving from labor-intense processes to using machines that run on fossil fuels.

Holmes said she talks to students about the societal functions of food and shopping, as the experience of gathering and eating food connects people and that’s part of what she thinks farmers’ markets do better than commercial grocery stores.

“It’s a very healing kind of environment,” Holmes says.

Responding to local initiatives like those led by Holmes and Goldway, the U.S. Department of Agriculture created the Farmers’ Market Promotion Program in 1976, and expanded it under the leadership of Dan Glickman (’66), U.S. Secretary of Agriculture from 1995 to 2001.

Glickman recalls that several people in the Department of Agriculture came to him and said farmers’ markets were going to be big, asking what could they do to help.

“Our role was to support and foster,” Glickman says, noting that markets gave farmers an opportunity to sell their goods directly, keeping more of the money themselves while creating a direct relationship with consumers. “It’s helpful that people who don’t grow food connect to people who do. They’ll recognize that food comes from the soil, raised by hardworking people.”

“More Americans are asking, ‘Do we really want so much of our food to come from 1,500 miles away?’” he says, adding that some farmers are asking the related question of why they should sell their product wholesale when they could keep a bigger share if they sell direct to local customers.

Glickman helped grow the Elder Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program to feed low-income seniors and other groups with food from farmers’ markets. Glickman says he’s pleasantly surprised to see markets play a role helping low-income Americans eat better. From 2007 to 2010, redemption of food stamps (now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) at farmers’ markets increased by 365 percent, according to the Farmers Market Coalition.

Choice and More Choice

Karen Klonsky (’74), extension specialist at the University of California, Davis, thinks the growth in farmers’ markets is motivated in part by food scares, such as the outbreak of E. coli poisonings from spinach in 2006, or the 2008 recall of millions of pounds of beef. Klonsky says she thinks such events make consumers acutely aware of the distance between them and their food’s origins.

Klonsky, a math major, uses her expertise to estimate farmers’ costs of production, including farms’ use of pesticides and cover crops (the plants farmers use to assist the growth of their primary crops). She notes that many lettuce and spinach farmers are moving away from organic techniques because they want to reduce their plants’ contact with manure to cut down the risk of another E. coli outbreak.

For example, the popular Freakonomics website posted an article in November 2011 criticizing the inefficiencies of local food and pointing out, for example, that grapes and almonds grow better in California and potatoes grow better in Idaho.

“Amid heightened concern about global climate change, it has become almost conventional wisdom that we must return to our agricultural roots in order to contain the carbon footprint of our food by shortening the distance it travels from farm to fork, and by reducing the quantity of carbon-intensive chemicals applied to our mono-cropped fields,” Steve Sexton wrote.

“But implicit in the argument that local farming is better for the environment than industrial agriculture is an assumption that a ‘relocalized’ food system can be just as efficient as today’s modern farming. That assumption is simply wrong. Today’s high crop yields and low costs reflect gains from specialization and trade, as well as scale and scope economies that would be forsaken under the food system that locavores endorse.”

Efficiency, however, is only part of the equation.

Ari Weinzweig (’78) says establishing a Thursday evening market in the parking lot of Zingerman’s Roadhouse was a result of the Zingerman’s visioning process. People from all levels of the organization created a plan that included building community on the west side of Ann Arbor, giving farmers another opportunity to sell, and providing shoppers more access to farm-fresh food.

“It’s win-win for everyone,” Zingerman’s cofounder Weinzweig says, noting the aim of the market is not to generate profit for Zingerman’s. It’s volunteer run and more about their commitment to small-scale agriculture.

The Westside market is similar to many of the new markets around the country, and Stacy M. Miller, executive director of the Farmers Market Coalition, says markets still have room to grow before they realize their full potential.

“I think the rapid expansion in the growth of farmers’ markets is itself a thing to celebrate, but it’s also a symptom, I think, of growing disenchantment with our financial paradigm in the United States, and a desire to invest in what matters: healthy land, healthy people, and healthy communities that are all part of a more direct and transparent economy,” Miller says.

“That said, I don’t think growth in the number of markets in communities large and small is justification for hanging a ‘mission accomplished’ banner. The fact is that a high proportion of farmers’ markets are young, volunteer-dependent, and have very few opportunities to learn best practices and avoid reinvention of the wheel. The sector is nascent, and still evolving, and we as a society should commit to growing farmers’ markets’ capacity to positively transform our relationships to food and agriculture.”

Colleen Newvine (M.B.A. ’05) is a marketing and communications consultant based in Brooklyn, New York. Her business, Newvine Growing, focuses on farms and farmers’ markets:

Photo: Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State University

A Look Inside:

A few of the country's oldest (and most impressive) farmer's markets

Lancaster Central Market (Lancaster, Pennsylvania) began in 1730, when plans for a public marketplace were drawn into the original town blueprint. Located in the heart of Amish country, the market features a host of area food specialties, such as Pennsylvania Dutch sausage, a mix of pork scraps and cornmeal called “scrapple,” and “chowchow,” pickled vegetables canned in spicy mustard.

Soulard Farmers Market (St. Louis, Missouri) began modestly in 1779 as a meadow where local farmers could congregate to sell vegetables, fruit, dairy, and livestock. Since then, Soulard has survived a host of notorious events, including a lengthy land battle in the wake of the Louisiana Purchase and multiple tornadoes. It is the oldest farmers’ market west of the Mississippi River.

Eastern Market (above) (Detroit, Michigan) began as the Detroit Farmer's Market in 1841. The market gained its current moniker in 1891 when it moved from its downtown location to the city’s near-east side. In addition to being the world's largest bedding flower market, the market is estimated to distribute 70,000 tons of produce per year, and attracts as many as 45,000 shoppers each Saturday.

Pike Place Market (Seattle, Washington) has been open since 1907 and is one of the oldest continually operated public farmers’ markets in America. Born out of consumer outrage over the middleman markup on onions, Pike Place’s current nine acres boast farmers, craftspeople, commercial businesses, street performers, and musicians, as well as more than 300 apartment units.