Don Wambles used to think about farming in terms of raising a crop. But that word is too impersonal for the life-sustaining gifts that make their way from farmers’ fields to family dinner plates, he says.
“Years ago, I realized we’re not just growing a crop,” he says. “We take great pride in the fact that we are growing food for people.”
The personal connection is becoming more apparent as consumers flock to farmers markets for the chance to meet the people who grow their food.
As the director of the state’s Farmers Market Authority since 1995, Wambles has had a front row seat for the explosion of farmers markets in Alabama.
In 1999, the state had 17 farmers markets, he says. As of late 2011, there are 135.
“The number one advantage by far, is the fresh, wholesome supply of fresh fruits and vegetables,” Wambles says. “But the one advantage that people don’t realize until they go to the market is the socialization aspect. They create this nostalgic atmosphere where people from all walks of life come together and socialize over the food that we eat. Farmers and consumers come together and create an understanding and appreciation for one another.”
The markets also let farmers sell their products directly to consumers, cutting out middle men and boosting their bottom lines.
Wambles attributes much of the growth of this industry to four magic words: “Buy Fresh, Buy Local.”
The Farmers Market Authority used that slogan for a short ad campaign in 2004, and “our sales of fresh local produce exploded,” he says. “(Consumers) are driven by the fact that we not only want something fresh, but we want to support our local growers. We want local produce. It has been proven that our consumers would prefer local produce to organic produce. It’s that important to them to have local stuff.”
Across the state, about 1,100 farms participate in the farmers markets each year, which operate in all but one county and generates at least $16 million in sales – a number that Wambles calls a low-ball estimate.
He expects more growth due to the still-surging interest.
“All we need to do is grow it and show people, ‘here we are,’ then do a good job with the food, the presentation and the activities that are part of the market,” he says. “They go home with some of the best tasting food that they’ve ever had.”
Alabama Farmers Market Statistics
- In 1999, Alabama had 17 farmers markets.
- In late 2011, there were 135 farmers markets in the state.
- About 1,100 farms participate in Alabama farmers markets each year.
- Alabama farmers markets generate at least $16 million in annual sales.