FRESNO, Calif. -- As demand for locally grown fruits and vegetables has increased, so too has the number of urban farmers markets sprouting up across the nation.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced Friday that the number of direct-sales markets has increased 9.6 percent in the past year, with California and New York leading the way.

"Farmers markets are a critical ingredient to our nation's food system," USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan said. "These outlets provide benefits not only to the farmers looking for important income opportunities, but also to the communities looking for fresh, healthy foods."

After 18 years of steady increases, the number of farmers markets across the country now registered with the USDA is 7,864. In 1994, there were 1,744.

Organizations such as Slow Food, founded in 1989 to counter fast-food, junk-food lifestyles, first ignited consumer demand for fresh, local produce.

"My husband and I prefer to eat locally and organically," said Tracy Stuntz, a college instructor who shops at the Vineyard Farmer's Market in Fresno. "You go to the grocery store and everything is the same. The farmer's market has yellow zucchini and green onions that are like a foot long – produce you don't see other places."

Some markets are so popular that there are wait lists for farmers to sell there, including one of the largest and most diverse of all, the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market in San Francisco. Farmers from across the region travel there three days a week to sell fruits, vegetables and artisan breads and cheeses to thousands of shoppers, including top chefs from the food-centric city.

Operated by the Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture, the iconic market on the San Francisco Bay is celebrating its 20th birthday.

"When we started there were only three markets in the city, and now there are 29," said Liz Hunt, a center spokeswoman.

Grant Brians of Heirloom Organic Gardens sells more than 200 old-fashioned varieties of vegetables, herbs and fruit grown on two farms in San Benito County, about 100 miles south of San Francisco. Others bring in stone fruits from the San Joaquin Valley, and berries from the coast.

Dave Stockdale, the center's executive director, said farmers markets empower consumers to become active supporters of their communities.

"Every day eaters have the opportunity to vote with their forks and support small-scale farmers, investing resources in their communities, stimulating their local economies, and keeping ag land in sustainable production," he said.

The center uses the markets to educate consumers about unique varieties of produce and how to prepare them. Stockdale said the growing interest in farmers markets has prompted others to ask the center for help creating educational programs.

San Franciscan Bryan Miller frequents the Heart of the City farmers market at the San Francisco Civic Center, a venue so popular it recently added Fridays to its normal Wednesday and Sunday operations.

"It's fresh and cheap, to be quite honest," Miller said. "I can go to the store on the bus and buy black, ugly, mass-market stuff, but I don't want to do that. I would rather get local produce."

The USDA has worked to make the markets accessible to people of all income levels by outfitting more with the ability to accept payments from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps. More than $4 million is being made available to equip markets with wireless point-of-sale equipment.

California, the country's top agricultural producing state, has 827 markets, according to the USDA. New York has 647, more than double the next most prolific state, Massachusetts, which has 313.

The mid-Atlantic, Northeast and Southeast saw the biggest percentage growth in markets, reporting 15.8, 14.4 and 13.1 percent jumps in participation.

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  • Sunday - Glen Park Village Farmers Markets

    After more than three years of work by the Glen Park merchants association, the neighborhood finally has its own farmers market, and it even offers an incentive program for EBT/CalFresh tokens. The market offers a good selection of farms, alongside loads of prepared foods and specialty merchants.

  • Monday - 50 Fremont Plaza Farmers Market

    Until this April, Monday was an empty hole on the farmers market calendar. But thanks to the 50 Fremont Plaza market, you can now score enough fresh produce, tamales, hummus and kettle corn to cure any Monday hangover. The selection may be limited, but hey, it's Monday.

  • Tuesday - CUESA Ferry Building Farmers Market

    Tuesday is the newest addition to the Ferry Building Farmers Market trifecta, and we love it for its strong selection of fruit and flowers. Of course, the usual farms are present, but Tuesday also offers morning-goers a delicious selection of persimmons, kumquats, cherimoyas, feijoas, cactus pears and other hard-to-find fruits.

  • Wednesday - Heart of the City, UN Plaza

    Located in UN Plaza, Heart of the City Farmers Market is open on Wednesdays and Sundays, and offers better deals than are available at the more popular -- and pricier -- Ferry Building market. On Wednesdays, the market also offers plenty of lunch stands for the 9-5 crowd, as well as musicians and street performers. Heart of the City also offers many ethnic ingredients like raw sugar cane that can be hard to find at other markets.

  • Thursday - CUESA Ferry Building Farmers Market

    While the Saturday market is CUESA's big day at the Ferry Building, the FiDi crew knows that the Thursday lunch booths are the best in town. Steaming bowls of rich Hapa Ramen, spicy Korean tacos from Namu and the best sandwiches in the universe at RoliRoti. We're not kidding: enormous hunks of rustic sourdough slathered with meat drippings and topped with loads of fresh greens, tender lime-squeezed chicken and crispy porchetta, hot of the grill. Have mercy.

  • Friday - Old Oakland Farmers Market

    It is with a heavy heart that we report that, at least to our knowledge, there is no San Francisco farmers market. (And if we're wrong, please let us know in the comments section before our farm basket goes empty!) Fortunately, plenty can be found just across the pond in Oakland. Our favorite is the Old Oakland Farmers Market where shoppers find all of the usual suspects, as well as a healthy assortment of hard-to-find Asian produce mixed in. Not to mention, bright, sunny weather.

  • Saturday - CUESA Ferry Building Farmers Market

    Arguably the best market in the City (and definitely the most popular), the Saturday incarnation of CUESA's Ferry Building Farmers Market is a six-hour extravaganza of the best meat, produce, dairy and specialty products (think local rosemary sea salts) in the Bay Area. And if you haven't had enough by market's close at 2pm, you can always stick around for some chicken tortilla soup at Mijita.