Farmers market season has arrived.

Saturday, the Historic Haymarket Farmers Market -- Lincoln's largest market -- kicks off its 5 1/2 month season at 8 a.m.

At 3 p.m. Wednesday, Havelock Farmers Market makes its 2010 debut.

And last Sunday, the Old Cheney Road Garden Market opened - the first of the season of Lincoln's eight farmers markets.

During the summer, shoppers can find a farmers market in Lincoln on five of the seven days of the week, said Billene Nemec, coordinator of Buy Local, Buy Fresh Nebraska and manager of the Havelock Farmers Market.

And now, thanks to technology and other creative ventures, Nebraskans can buy products from local farmers year-round. That's because of programs like CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture), where people buy a share of a farm's produce yield that season, and the Nebraska Food Cooperative, which operates like an online farmers market and allows local producers to sell their products year-round.

Buying locally grown and produced foods is definitely the trend, Nemec said.

"People now are so aware of what their food is. They want to know about it from plant to plate - who produced it, how it was produced, when it was harvested," she said. "People are concerned about the environment and how far the food has traveled and how it was raised."

And as the trend for homegrown food grows, so does the repertoire of products. While fresh fruits, vegetables, herbs and plants vary by the season, locally raised meats, eggs and cheeses are available year-round.

And with most of the farmers market vendors coming from within a 100-mile radius of Lincoln, shoppers can be assured that most of the produce for sale was picked fresh that morning or the day before.

It goes without saying that farmers markets have always been about locally grown fresh produce.

But for many, the draw of the farmers market is also about the entertainment. They are great social events, coupled with unique foods to sample and take home.

But more so now than in the past, farmers markets are a social statement - about our economy, our food sources, our environment and our health.

"We see it all around us," said Elaine Cranford, manager of the Old Cheney Road Garden Market. "Turn on the Food Network and they are telling you to buy local. (President) Obama has his own garden now."

People are paying closer attention to where they get their food.

"It's in the mainstream and in the spotlight. Some people are just curious and want to experiment and have fun with finding new things they can't find in a grocery store," Cranford said. "Others are more concerned about their health and wanting to eat better and fresher. Even at some of the restaurants locally, we are seeing more local food on the menu."

Because fresh, healthy food is so important, some farmers markets, like the one in Havelock, participate in a senior nutrition program. Coupons are given to seniors to help them buy fresh fruit, vegetables and honey, Nemec said.

At the farmers market, shoppers talk face-to-face with the farmer who raised their food, learn about new foods, and pick up recipes.

People get to buy exactly what they want - organic, biodynamic, grass-fed, pasture-based, antibiotic/hormone-free - said Ruth Chantry, who with her husband, Evrett Lunquist, owns and operates Common Good Farm.

"Local food has changed tremendously in the last 10 years," Chantry said. "It's important for taste, nutrition, food safety, supporting the local economy - people are getting why it is so important. That is really encouraging to see."

World events are also emphasizing the need for local food sources, Nemec said. From food recalls to Iceland's erupting volcano disrupting transportation, they drive home the need to have food sources closer to home, she said.

Lincoln's variety of farmers markets also reflect the diversity of the community, said Emily Kennedy, manager of the farmers market at St. Paul United Church of Christ, 1302 F St.

The farmers market started last summer "as a funky outreach idea," Kennedy said. The goal was to offer quality produce at a lower cost and bring people in the community together for a reason.

Last year, the market had eight vendors. Ten vendors have signed up this year, including the gardening kids from Lincoln's recreation centers.

"The kids bring over a lot of stuff. Very unique things, cultural, ethnic kinds of things," Kennedy said.

"They were very successful last year. They sold through all of their produce every week," she said.

New farmers markets continue to sprout up in Lincoln and the surrounding area, but there is no fear of having too many, Nemec said.

Demand for freshly grown and raised food exceeds the supply. And each market has its own personality.

"The growth of farmers markets really benefits each other," Nemec said. "It allows the farmer to sell his or her product at the peak of flavor, and it gives consumers plenty of options for picking up fresh food."

Reach Erin Andersen at 473-7217 or eandersen@journalstar.com.

About the Food Cooperative

The Nebraska Food Cooperative describes itself as a year-round online farmers market.

Established in 2007, the Nebraska Food Cooperative has nearly 100 Nebraska  farmers, ranchers and producers selling products, including fresh produce; organic eggs; freshly made artisan breads; steaks, chops and jerkys made from grass-fed cattle; and handmade soaps, candles and chocolates.

The cooperative has another 700 shopper members. Membership prices range from $300 (annual voting membership) to $40 (annual non-voting) or $6 (per order) visitor memberships.

Every two weeks, local farmers list the goods they will have available for the next round of orders. Prices vary by producer.

Shoppers choose what and how much they want and are given a link to the local producer to find out his or her farming practices, said William Powers, director of Nebraska Food Cooperative.

Orders are placed online. At least once a month (twice monthly from May through August), the producers bring their goods to a central location, where individual orders are then filled and taken to a designated site for pick-up. Pick-up sites in Lincoln: Coffee Emergency, 2723 N. 48th St., and Shadowbrook Farm, 2201 W. Denton Road.

Often those handing out the orders are the same farmers who grew or raised the food, Williams said.

Although farmers markets are growing in number and popularity, Williams does not see it as a competitor to the food co-op.

“The cooperative is another outlet for people to sell their products,” he said.

To learn more about the Nebraska Food Cooperative and the products available, visit www.nebraskafood.org.

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