Oh, what a difference a year makes.
Last year at this time, maple producers were lamenting a season cut short by an unusually warm March, orchard owners were dreading a late-April freeze that could threaten their early-budding trees, and crop farmers were happily getting a head start on planting.
This year? Well, that’s a different story.
Maple producers fared better thanks to a more cooperative winter, but lingering cold weather — including April snow in many parts — has put some farmers behind in their planting.
As usual, the weather is predictably unpredictable, despite the best efforts of meteorologists and the Farmers’ Almanac.
But there’s one sign of spring we can count on: Farmers market season is upon us. Some markets have already celebrated their openings, while others are just around the corner.
Yes, with the expanding use of season-extending hoop houses and the growing popularity of winter markets, some people are able to enjoy the market experience year-round — even if it’s for a more limited selection of root vegetables, greens, meats, poultry, eggs, honey and the like.
But there’s something about the market openings at this time of year that simply herald the coming of spring. And over the past few years, farmers markets have been fruitful and multiplying, like a carefully tended crop blessed with a season of perfect weather.
Last year, the USDA reported a total of 7,864 farmers markets nationwide, an increase of 5,000 since 2000 and a 9.6 percent increase over 2011.
Those surges hold true in our region, as well.
This year, for instance, 131 markets will open in Maryland, with at least one in every county and Baltimore city. There were only 20 markets in the state in 1991 and as few as 88 as recently as 2008.
In Delaware, the number of markets blossomed from 16 to 29 last year, selling $1.96 million in goods.
New York has more than doubled its farmers markets since 2000. The state was home to 521 markets last year, including 138 in New York City.
Among U.S. states with the most farmers markets, New York, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Virginia rank among the top 10. And regionally, the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast saw increases of 15.8 and 14.4 percent.
The benefits of farmers market popularity are numerous. Obviously, it’s good for the farmer from both an economic and public relations standpoint. Direct-to-consumer sales provide the perfect opportunity for farmers to tell their story to the public.
For consumers, it means more access to healthy foods. And as more markets participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, that access is, thankfully, growing.
The USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service offers a handy tool to search for the farmers market nearest you. Visit http://search.ams.usda.gov/farmersmarkets/.
Farmers face a lot of uncertainties — whether it’s mild winters and summer drought, or burdensome regulations and labor woes.
But the explosion of farmers markets is indicative of one certainty — the growing consumer demand for local food, a demand that shows no signs of going away.
And at spring or any time of year, that is a good sign.