It is undisputed: many consumers love farmers markets.

More than 1,000 farmers markets have started in the U.S. over the past year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture in its 2011 National Farmers Market Directory, http://search.ams.usda.gov/farmers markets.

That is up 17% compared with a year ago.

The 2011 directory shows that 7,175 farmers markets operate in the U.S., up from 6,132 markets at the same time a year ago. Almost 12% of all the markets reported the ability to accept food stamp benefits, an increase of 16%.

Last year, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program purchases totaled $7.5 million at farmers markets and direct-to-consumer food retail establishments. Participants made 453,711 purchases at farmers markets in 2010, with an average amount bought of $16.69, according to the report.

Barbara Ambler-Thomas, executive director of Walnut Creek, Calif.-based California Farmers Market Association, said the greater San Francisco Bay Area group added a farmers market in Los Altos in the past year.

“I think the popularity of farmers markets is growing because people want to know where their food is sourced from,” Ambler-Thomas said.

The freshness of the local produce, combined with access to heirloom varieties not available at a grocery store, are big parts of the appeal, she said.

Ambler-Thomas said all of the association’s 14 markets are full, and she gets calls from growers every week seeking to get into the markets.

“We’ve grown tremendously over the past few years,” she said, adding that all of the group’s markets can take food stamp benefits and fruit and vegetable vouchers from the Women Infant and Children program.

The number of local food markets in Ohio increases every year, said Jim Mullet, manager of the Mount Hope Produce Auction, Mount Hope, Ohio. The auction supplies various farmers markets throughout the state.  

“As long as people are thinking local foods, there is no question (the trend) will keep growing,” he said.

From the supplier perspective, more and more farmers can’t make a living at milking cows and feeding hogs.

“Produce is something they can do and something that doesn’t take a huge farm to make a living at it,” he said.

Food safety precautions are important to established farmers markets, but some newer markets don’t pay as much attention to the issue, he said.

Economist Desmond O’Rourke, president of Belrose Inc., Pullman, Wash., said there is no doubt consumers love farmers markets. However, he believes the growth in the number of markets in some states with short growing seasons could be deceiving.

“The number that are actually (selling) farm products, produced by local suppliers for any length of time, is pretty limited.”

What’s more, he said, farmers markets often feature fruits and vegetables in an unrefrigerated environment in hot conditions with no hand-washing facilities.

“It is the kind of stuff you wouldn’t tolerate at a grocery store,” he said. “To me, it like a disaster waiting to happen”

O’Rourke said the perception of freshness at a farmers market may be more perception than reality.

Consumer demand has fueled the growth of farmers markets, said Jeffrey O’Hara, economist with the Cambridge, Mass.-based Union of Concerned Scientists.

Author of a report called “Market Forces: Creating Jobs through Public Investment in Local and Regional Food Systems,” Ohara said that food grown closer can be fresher and more likely to be sustainably produced than conventional produce.

Growers have their own reasons to sell to the markets, he said.

“A lot of these farmers sell to these markets because they might be too small to sell to the increasingly consolidated food system,” O’Hara said.

The best potential for continued growth of farmers markets, he speculated, may be urban centers in proximity to rural farmland.

O’Hara said his report does advocate for certification standards for farmers markets, to make sure markets know where the food is coming from and that those farms meet food safety standards.

The fact that retailers are trying to bring in local food is a positive, he said. “If you see institutions start buying from local farmers, that is really a good thing,” he said. “Hospitals, jails, university, schools, the military — there’s a lot of potential for growth in institutional purchasing, and we need to make sure that can be supported.”National Farmers Market Week was Aug. 7-13.