"Especially on a beautiful day, you're chatting with them about their livelihood — I enjoy that experience as well as the food that comes out of it," she said.
The number of farms selling directly to consumers has grown, from an estimated 86,000 in the early 1990s to about 136,000 now, according to the USDA. And the number of farmers markets has about doubled, from 2,756 in 1998 to 5,274 in 2009.
Paul Gnaedinger has raised everything from organic corn and soybeans to wheat and rye on his organic farm near Pocahontas, Ill. Lately, he's turned to grass-fed beef.
He sells regionally and wasn't surprised in the growth in local food sales, chalking it up to consumers becoming more savvy in their purchases — and perhaps a bit greener, knowing that shorter shipping distances may lower the carbon footprint and the chances of contamination in transport.
"I don't want to say they're not trusting of other food sources," said Gnaedinger, 53, who also works as a nurse. "They do tell me they don't want to buy something in Colorado one day, then see it shipped to California before it's shipped here.
"There's real demand in the market for people wanting to know where their food is coming from, that it's going through local channels."
On his 1,800 acres near Friesland, Wis., Larry Alsum, 58, grows several varieties of potatoes that he sells mostly to grocers in Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana. He also handles wholesale distribution for farmers who grow everything from cabbage to sweet corn, squash, cucumbers and peppers.
He says his operation has blossomed into a $50 million business — roughly double what it was a decade or so ago — with a focus on locally grown food. Perhaps only one in five consumers actually cares what that means, he said, but it's more than did just a few years ago.
"As the cost of oil and gasoline continue to rise, there are going to me more opportunities for locally grown," he predicted. "And that just gives us a built-in advantage in marketing."
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.