UTICA, N.Y. -- A look at farmers markets and organic food.
Fanny Muskatt and Ellie Kowalsky chatted casually while milling around a colorful sea of vegetables at the Clinton Farmers Market on a warm Thursday afternoon.
The New Hartford residents and friends are becoming more partial to homegrown produce, saying national food contamination scares — from peanut butter to spinach to chili sauce — have made them more cautious about the food they buy and where they buy it.
"You just don't know what to do anymore," Kowalsky said.
She and her friend aren't alone, as farmers markets nationwide are reporting upsurges in attendance.
One reason is consumers' tendency to think they're better off buying locally grown food because of the belief that local farmers aren't using synthetic pesticides and hormones to grow food faster and bigger.
"We, as Americans, realized finally that we have not had the most healthy lifestyles in the past, and we are trying to look to ways to improve that, and eating more fruits and vegetables is helping with the popularity of farmers markets," said Don Wambles, vice president of the Farmers Market Coalition, based in Des Moines, Iowa.
High Traffic on the Lawn
Attendance at farmers markets in Herkimer and Middleville is up at least 15 percent, said Patt Lewis, president of the Herkimer Business and Professional Association, which sponsors the two farmers markets.
Lewis attributes some of the increase to food scares, which she has heard shoppers discussing.
"And they feel better about buying local, just supporting local," said Lewis, who said the eight to 10 vendors selling produce, baked goods and plants at the markets sell only homegrown products.
Offering high-quality products, access to specialty crop varieties and personalized customer service also help some farmers markets thrive, according to a 2002 USDA report on organic produce and price premiums.
The attendance upsurge has been significant at the Clinton Farmers Market, but whether that has anything to do with food scares isn't clear, said Ferris J. Betrus Jr., executive vice president of the Clinton Chamber of Commerce, which oversees the farmers market.
"We're up 25 to 30 percent from last year in attendance, easy," Betrus said.
The Clinton Farmers Market attracts about 400 customers every Thursday during the summer, when a total of about 55 vendors, 20 of which sell food, will be on site.
Most sell locally grown or produced food, but only two sell organic produce and two sell organic eggs and meat, Betrus said.
A regular shopper at the Clinton Farmers Market, Karin Turett has always been health conscious but found that her interest in organic food has grown in recent years because of national food contamination scares.
"Organic is the only way to go, I feel," said the New Hartford resident, who is a natural foods chef.
Founded three years ago at a three-acre farm in Sauquoit, Old Path Farm is an organic food vendor at the Clinton Farmers Market. Business was brisk at its booth on a Thursday afternoon in mid-July and has picked up each summer, said Abby Youngblood, one of three farmers who run the business.
Youngblood thinks the traffic increase has less to do with food scares and more to do with people becoming more aware of the benefits of organic food and maintaining a healthy diet in general.
"It helps our business in that people are wanting to learn more about where their food comes from," Youngblood said.
WHAT ORGANIC MEANS
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Organic Program, which developed national organic standards and established an organic certification program:
- Organic crops are raised without using most conventional pesticides, petroleum-based fertilizers or sewage sludge-based fertilizers.
- Animals raised on an organic operation must be fed organic feed and given access to the outdoors. They are given no antibiotics or growth hormones.
- Products labeled "100 percent organic" must contain only organically produced ingredients.
- Products labeled "organic" must consist of at least 95 percent organically produced ingredients. Products meeting the requirements for "100 percent organic" and "organic" may display the USDA Organic seal.
- Processed products that contain at least 70 percent organic ingredients can use the phrase "made with organic ingredients" and list up to three of the organic ingredients or food groups on the principal display panel.
- Processed products that contain less than 70 percent organic ingredients cannot use the term "organic" other than to identify the specific ingredients that are organically produced in the ingredients statement.
- A civil penalty of up to $11,000 can be levied on any person who knowingly sells or labels as organic a product that is not produced and handled in accordance with the National Organic Program's regulations.
Utica (N.Y.) Observer-Dispatch