Thousands of shoppers flock to the Downtown Farmers Market, located in the Court District, every Saturday from early May until late October. But downtown Des Moines isn’t the only area where farmers markets are thriving: There are 237 markets across the state. Photo by Duane Tinkey
Thousands of shoppers flock to the Downtown Farmers Market, located in the Court District, every Saturday from early May until late October. But downtown Des Moines isn’t the only area where farmers markets are thriving: There are 237 markets across the state. Photo by Duane Tinkey

What began in 1976 as a small-scale farmers market with only 15 vendors selling their goods has grown into an event that spans the Court District with hundreds of booths and attracts 18,000 visitors each week.

The Downtown Farmers Market, open from early May to late October, is far from its humble beginnings, but Director Kelly Foss said its purpose is still the same: connecting urban and rural communities by giving consumers a way to meet the person responsible for growing their food.

The downtown market does just that, by bringing in more than 200 vendors from 51 of Iowa’s 99 counties, Foss said, adding that some wake as early as 3 a.m. to make it to the market by the 5 a.m. setup time.

“The fact that they feel such a connection to our consumers and community speaks to the market’s success,” she said.

Although the number of vendors has increased over the years, the emphasis on quality is still the same. Foss pointed to several vendors that are now in high demand, selling their products directly to local chefs or high-end restaurants in Chicago. One vendor’s goat cheese has even won international awards.

Entertainers, prepared food vendors and local artists also add to the market’s special atmosphere, turning it into a real community gathering where you meet up with new friends and run into old ones, Foss said.

“We’ve learned to do it well by studying other markets and realizing opportunities in our community,” she said. “I’ve met with lots of market managers to learn from their challenges.”

The Downtown Farmers Market has definitely been able to seize opportunities, expanding to a Wednesday afternoon market in Western Gateway Park and adding an indoor winter market in recent years.

But downtown Des Moines isn’t the only area were farmers markets are thriving. In total, the state has 237 farmers markets, a large number on a per-capita basis which has brought national recognition in the recent months.

For instance, Iowa landed in the No. 2 spot of the Strolling of the Heifers Locavore Index, an indicator of states’ commitments to raising and eating locally grown food. The only state to beat Iowa’s local food offerings was Vermont.

New markets are constantly popping up across the state; the number of farmers markets has increased more than 75 percent in the last 15 years.

A new farmers market in Beaverdale will have its opening day next week.

“All the feedback I received was that this was something people wanted,” said Dana Greenwood, president of the Beaverdale Farmers Market. “I was the only dummy willing to spend the time to get it organized.”

Greenwood, who works for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, invested a lot of his own money and time to get it off the ground. He held neighborhood meetings to address residents’ concerns and spoke with local businesses to receive their help.

He worked with five others for about a year and a half to get the market ready for its June 5 debut. The outcome of their hard work: more than 40 vendors will set up booths in Beaverdale Park every Tuesday afternoon until late October.

“My hope is that this community supports it,” he said. “I hope that it benefits the businesses, private citizens and the whole community.”

The high number of markets also leaves behind a surprisingly large economic impact. In 2010, an Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship study revealed that farmers markets had a statewide economic impact of $71 million, generating 374 direct jobs and 200 indirect jobs.

Mike Bevins, a horticulturist who works with the agency’s farmers market program, said the department conducted the study to see if the increase in markets dotting the state actually translated into more sales or if money was just being split up among the various markets. Bevins said he was surprised to find there was a huge increase in sales. Between 2004 and 2009 alone, there was a 92 percent sales growth rate – an $18 million increase from the $20 million estimate in 2004.

The majority of the $38.4 million worth of sales in 2009 occurred in Iowa’s five largest urban areas. About 72 percent, or $27.7 million, came from Cedar Rapids, Davenport, Des Moines, Sioux City and Waterloo. Greater Des Moines accounted for about $19 million worth of sales.

Iowa has loyal shoppers, too, Bevins said, pointing out that consumers visit their local market an average of 11 times during the season. He believes the state’s long and rich agricultural history may have something to do with this.

Farmers markets’ rapid rise in popularity can be attributed to the nation’s growing concern over where its food comes from, Greenwood said.

He joined a Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) enterprise just last week and said once you eat truly fresh food nothing else compares.

“You know what you’re getting, you know that it’s local and you know that you’re supporting the farmers,” he said. “That’s what makes it work. Everyone has to win: the vendors, the city and the neighborhood.”