07/06/2012 11:19 am ET Updated Sep 05, 2012

Summer Love: Farmers Markets, Community Heartbeat

Summer is a time of barbeques, outdoor celebrations and a grateful welcome to tomatoes, snap peas and an abundance of lettuces and garden squash. Summer is also turning into a celebration of America's 7,175 farmers markets that serve as a centerpiece to thriving and promising landscape of a beloved local foods movement. The movement itself, begun as a pause of digestion between bites of untraceable and semi-conscious mouthfuls of food, is now, more than ever, central to our national dialogue on personal health, community well-being, food justice and a revitalized economy. And as we all take part in collectively re-imagining our world, beginning with our food and agricultural systems, local markets hold promise to feed our souls and our bellies.

Each summer, the USDA comes out with new statistics looking at farmers markets and their impact on local food systems and local economies. And for the last four years, American Farmland Trust has opened the online voting booths for the America's Favorite Farmers Markets Contest. Farmers markets across the globe have long served as heart-centers for communities, a place where neighbors shop, interact, share recipes and tap into seasonality and taste of place. Anyone who has attended a farmers market knows that each one has its own pulse and flavor. So market day is a great way to experience community as both a noun and a verb. It's a place where knowing your farmer becomes more than just a feel-good trope of the good life, but can also be a momentary alarm to remember some of our most life-giving relationships. There was a time when locally grown radishes were less of a status symbol and more just plain food. And with more than eleven million dollars from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) spent at farmers markets, they're creating another avenue for fresh food access.  

As the nation's population pulls more deeply into our urban cocoons (only 3 percent of U.S. families live on farms), it seems that these clear glimpses into local food are an even more critical part of revitalizing and celebrating the vestiges of agriculture in our communities. Even as markets are cheered for creating new profit models for the local food industry's $4.8 billion impact, the average principal farmer earns less than $13,000 of income from their farms. Direct marketing and sales through farmers markets provides farms -- small farms in particular -- an opportunity to provide autonomy in pricing and sales, while at the same time attracting customers and building relationships with consumers.

Farmers markets aren't the ultimate solution to bringing agriculture back into the forefront of our local economies but they have an important place in honoring the role of agriculture and local foods for our personal health and the long-term health of our communities. If you have a favorite farmers market, vote for it in the America's Favorite Farmer's Market Contest and share your favorite stories from your market community!