Taste, food quality top reasons

Sep 28, 2007 at 9:29 p.m. ET

Farmers' market shoppers surveyed in a University of Nebraska study rated taste and quality, followed by nutrition and price as their reasons for choosing locally grown produce, said Jerry Jost, speaking on behalf of the Kansas Rural Center at the 2007 Sustainable Agriculture Conference held recently at Kansas State University.

The study, "Attracting Consumers with Locally Grown Products," which was conducted by the Food Processing Center at the university in 2001, also found that shoppers buying meats from local producers cited food safety and quality as their number one and two reasons for shopping at the farmers' market, he said.

The assessment was funded by the United States Department of Agriculture and done at the request of The North Central Initiative for Small Farm Profitability. More details are online at www.farmprofitability.org/local.pdf.

With the number of farmers' markets across the United States growing, up from 455 in 1946 to 3,706 in 2004, Jost credits the local markets with linking people with agriculture and what he calls, "bringing the community to the table."

In 2006, he said, more than 60 markets were included in Kansas State University Research and Extension's annual state directory of the local markets.

Why the growth in farmers' markets and interest in local foods?

"Knowing where your food is coming from has become increasingly important since 9-11," Jost said. Food safety and security is tied to homeland security and among the reasons given for purchasing locally grown foods.

In rural and suburban areas, he said, local vendors often are friends and neighbors. In more densely populated areas, regular shoppers also can take advantage of the opportunity to get to know local growers and vendors they see on a weekly basis.

Prices at the local markets are typically competitive, Jost said. Selecting produce and buying a quantity that suits your household also can yield a cost savings.

The markets are educational, in that vendors who sell locally grown meat and produce usually are willing to offer tips for choosing, using and storing the fresh foods, Jost said.

Shoppers should not assume, however, that locally raised meat and produce is organic. Those whose operations have been certified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as organic, however, may display evidence of their certification as a marketing tool.

Offerings at local markets are expanding, said Jost, who reported that some markets offer baked goods, arts and crafts, bedding plants, cut flowers, seasonal decorations, and even an inviting outdoor café or coffee spot.

Shopping at farmers' markets - at home and on vacation as well - can provide social opportunities to visit with friends and neighbors and meet new people, while also sampling local culture in an enjoyable atmosphere, he said.

More information on farmers' markets and choosing and using locally grown foods also is available at county and district K-State Research and Extension offices and on the Extension Web site: www.oznet.ksu.edu.