The Kale Effect

By Jay Feldman and Ben Feldman

Farmers markets are flourishing—and changing the way America eats.

California farmers market

Kale is unquestionably one of the healthiest vegetables around.

Closely related to broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower, kale is high in beta-carotene, calcium, and vitamins C, A, and K, and has been shown to lower both cholesterol and the risk of many types of cancer.

California farmers marketDuring the Middle Ages, kale was one of the most commonly found vegetables in the European diet. Yet despite kale’s enjoying widespread popularity for centuries, demand gradually declined, until it became the ugly duckling of leafy greens. Its nutritional value notwithstanding, kale became an afterthought. Most people in the United States had never heard of it, much less tasted it, and for years it languished as a decoration on restaurant salad bars.

But in the past 15 years, kale has taken off. Fueled largely by the spread of farmers markets, kale began to make its way from small farms to community-supported agriculture boxes to health food stores and into the wider world. Restaurants and grocery stores picked up on the trend, and the rush was on. In 2011 approximately 4,700 U.S. grocery stores sold kale. By the end of 2014, that number had increased to more than 50,000 stores. The ugly duckling was now in Wal-Mart and on the menu at the local pizzeria. Kale had arrived, a new star among the produce.

Kale is just one example of how small farms and farmers markets are improving the way Americans eat. Heirloom tomatoes, arugula, pluots, and pomegranates have all joined the mainstream by way of small-scale farmers and farmers markets. As Michael Specter recently wrote in the New Yorker, farmers markets, once rare, “have become a routine place to shop for food, including items like chard and Brussels sprouts, which until recently were considered more laughable than edible.”

Farmers markets have also been instrumental in popularizing organic agriculture, local food, and pastured meats and eggs. Simply put, by putting the focus on fresh, healthy food, farmers markets have enhanced the American food scene and, with it, the American diet.

California farmers market
While open-air produce markets have been around in this country since the Jamestown settlement, it is only in the past 35 years that farmers markets, as we now think of them, have flourished. In 1980 there were only a handful across the country. Indeed, it was only in the late 1970s that they were legalized in California. In the early 1980s, markets began to find a toehold, and in the past 20 years they have positively mushroomed. According to U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics, the number of farmers markets nationwide rose steadily from 1,755 in 1994, to 3,706 in 2004, to 8,284 in 2014—an increase of nearly 500 percent.

This is not an accident. Farmers markets have surged in popularity because they present an alternative to the typical American food-shopping experience of increasingly large and impersonal supermarkets. Farmers markets offer the unbeatable combination of high-quality produce, good value, and a sense of connection—strengths that address larger societal concerns about health (both personal and environmental), economics, and loss of community.

California farmers marketFirst and foremost, of course, is the product. Almost universally, the quality of produce available at farmers markets is fresher and more flavorful than what shoppers find in supermarkets. “Good vegetables are fresh vegetables, and the freshest produce is not found in the grocery store,” says Erin Barnett ’92, who for 10 years was director of Local Harvest, an organization that uses online tools to connect farmers with consumers in Santa Cruz, California. “Getting really fresh produce in front of people will change the way they eat because it reminds them how good real food is. Farmers markets are making an impact in that way.”

Farmers markets also “give people access to food that they wouldn’t be able to get otherwise,” says Mary Ellen Frame ’57, a retired farmer, founder of the Northfield Farmers Market, and cofounder of Farm Food Bank, which currently provides a large amount of produce to Carleton’s dining services. “There’s a little town out here, Denison, that doesn’t have a grocery store. It’s surrounded by cornfields and bean fields and so on, so the farmers market in town not only provides a source for residents to purchase locally grown food—it’s their only nearby source for food. Setting up [farmers markets] in cities and suburbs also provides access to fresh, local food that people wouldn’t have otherwise.”

Another part of the market experience is shoppers getting to know the farmers they buy from and learning how their food is grown. “Many customers like to know the people who have grown the food they’re eating,” says Frame. “They want to know where the food comes from, how it’s raised, and so on. They take a real interest in that. Especially for city people, this is the only chance they ever get to talk to farmers.”

Waterpenny FarmForging a relationship with growers has become an integral part of the farmers market experience. “People are coming to markets with specific questions and a greater understanding of the details that play into farming,” says Laura Bazzetta ’10, a marketing associate and greenhouse manager at Live Earth Farm in Watsonville, California, which sells at five markets each week. “People’s interest in sustainable food practices has grown over the past couple of years. I see more and more regulars at our markets. People who came to our stand two years ago just to try our strawberries are now regular shoppers who buy their potatoes and kale and chard from us.”

With their emphasis on locally grown produce, farmers markets are attractive to consumers who seek an environmentally sustainable model. “You can go to the store and find strawberries from California at any month of the year, but at what cost in terms of labor and transportation?” asks Betsey Buckheit, secretary of the board of directors for the Riverwalk Market Fair in Northfield. “I would rather buy better food locally, and if I only get asparagus for three weeks in June, that’s okay because that’s when it tastes wonderful. Then I wait for it again.”

In addition to offering better-quality food than supermarkets, farmers markets customarily offer better value. “There’s a common misconception that farmers markets are very expensive,” says Bazzetta. “That may be true for certain products such as meat and dairy: if you’re farming organically and sustainably, you have to charge a premium to be able to make it. But for vegetables, the prices we charge [at] farmers markets are often better than what you will find in a grocery store.”

With regard to cost, a significant development in broadening the farmers-market demographic are incentive programs like the California Market Match and Double-Up Food Bucks, which allow low-income individuals to double their purchasing power by shopping for fresh fruits and vegetables with electronic food stamps. At the same time, such programs can lead to consumers making healthier food choices for their families.

“An increasing number of people on various government assistance programs have been shopping at our market,” says Rachel Bynum ’95, who, with her husband Eric Plaksin ’96, runs Waterpenny Farm in Sperryville, Virginia, about 75 miles from Washington, D.C. “They are not a significant chunk of our customer base, but the number is growing. Many people are taking advantage of the Market Match program and, once they get to the market, they realize the other benefits that come along with shopping here.”

Adds Bazzetta: “Many customers find they’re able to bring more food home to their families by shopping at farmers markets than they would if they’d just gone to the store.”

As an added bonus, incentive programs benefit small and medium-size farmers by increasing their income and protecting the economic viability of their farms.

California farmers marketFarmers markets offer superior products and greater value, but they also engender a sense of community. For many people—shoppers and farmers alike—the market is a treasured weekly social event. Farming is a necessarily solitary activity, so the market provides farmers with a chance to socialize both with their customers and with other farmers.  The event occupies an equally significant place in shoppers’ weekly routine. As Barnett observes, “For some people, getting up on Saturday morning and going to the market to poke around, listen to music, and buy a pastry is really their church.”

Lloyd Johnson, who sells his produce at the twice-weekly farmers market in Davis, California, echoes Barnett: “There is something to be said for people you know casually. You see them every week, and you may not be the best friends, but they say, ‘How you doing?’ It’s an important human interaction. When I was growing up, these interactions happened in the church we went to every Sunday. Here, the market has that same kind of function. You see these people and you watch them and their families grow and change. They watch you grow up and get old. It makes people feel good to see the same people week after week.”

With so much to offer, farmers markets’ rising popularity should come as no surprise. As is often the case, popularity has led to competitors’ taking a page from the playbook, as supermarkets and other food stores nationwide have initiated efforts to highlight locally grown or produced food. In some cases, grocery stores have begun to describe their produce sections as “indoor farmers markets,” and one national grocery chain has gone so far as to use the phrase “farmers market” as part of its name.

Perhaps more than anything else, this change in language shows how the habits and preferences of American food shoppers are evolving. It also demonstrates how the reach of farmers and farmers markets extends well beyond the physical markets and the people who shop there. And while kale may be the most obvious example of this influence, it
is neither the first nor certainly will it be the last time that an adventurous farmer introduces an uncommon variety of fruit or vegetable at a local market—and it takes off from there. 


Rachel Bynum ’95 and Eric Plaksin ’96

Rachel Bynum ’95 and her husband, Eric Plaksin ’96, run Waterpenny Farm in Sperryville, Virginia, where they grow vegetables and flowers for farmers markets.

Photos by Eli Meir Kaplan

Waterpenny farm

Waterpenny farm

Waterpenny Farm

Waterpenny Farm


Laura Bazzetta ’10

Laura Bazzetta ’10 works at Live Earth Farm in Watsonville, California, which sells its organic food at weekly markets.

Photos by Carlos Chavarria

California farmers market

Laura Bazzetta ’10

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