By Paula Rogo
NEW YORK (Reuters) - More Americans are buying locally grown food and new farmers markets are sprouting throughout the country,
During the past year more than 1,000 markets opened, for a total of 7,175, according to figures released by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).
And most of the growth is in states other than New York and California, which boast the most fresh food markets.
"The remarkable growth in farmers markets is an excellent indicator of the staying power of local and regional foods," said Deputy Agriculture Secretary Kathleen Merrigan.
"These outlets provide economic benefits for producers to grow their business and also to communities by providing increased access to fresh fruits and vegetables and other foods."
She attributed the rise in markets to farmers' desire for direct contact with consumers to gain a larger share of the consumer dollar and consumer demand for locally grown food and direct access to farmers.
"Whenever there is a food-borne outbreak, it drives more consumers to farmers markets," said Dianne Eggert, executive director of the Farmer's Market Federation of New York. "They can ask more questions about how their food is produced."
Alaska had the biggest surge in farmers markets at 46 percent with 35 new markets, followed by Texas and Colorado at second and third with a 38 percent increase in farmers markets.
"At first we thought it might be a trend, but we are trying to grow an industry from that trend and diversify market opportunities and different venues for consumers to have access to these products," Cynthia Torres, of the Colorado Farmers Market Association, said about the state's increase.
In New Mexico, a state that also enjoyed a 38 percent increase with 80 new markets, the demand for new farmers markets outpaces the number of farmers who are able to supply them.
"We get calls from communities that want to start their own markets, but there are not enough farmers to go around," said Denise Miller, executive director of the state Farmers' Marketing Association.
The markets allow local growers to sell their products directly to consumers, which enhances the development of the state's food systems that can support family farms and build communities. They also offer opportunities for farmers and their customers to interact.
The demand in New Mexico has increased the number of farmers involved from 560 in 2005 to 959 in 2010, according to the New Mexico Farmers' Marketing Association. But demand seems to be outstripping supply.
"The problem is the number of old farmers is shrinking and there are not a lot of new farmers replacing them," Miller explained.
Torres said she gets about five phone calls a week from towns and councils interested in starting and selling in farmer's markets.
"The economic value is definitely catching on and it is creating revenue streams," she said.
Over the last decade, farmers markets have grown in popularity as the nation navigated through different health trends.
The USDA first began publishing numbers in 1994 when there were only 1,755 farmers markets nationwide. A decade later it jumped to 3,706 in 2004, a number that is almost half of this year's 7,175.
The updated market listings were submitted to the USDA on a voluntary, self-reported basis by market managers earlier in the year.
(Reporting by Paula Rogo; Editing by Patricia Reaney)