They're doing so because the food is fresher, less processed and generally tastes better than what you'd find in a supermarket. But there are also political and social considerations: supporting small farmers, these shoppers believe, will preserve farmland, reduce the number of industrial farms and help us move away from an agricultural economy that encourages the production of commodities like corn, soy and sugar at the expense of just about everything else.
These people are right. And they're also wrong. The bitter truth is that American agriculture - its land and its immensely complex distribution system - is no longer in the hands of the small farmer. Small farmers and farmers' markets, as much as we want them to, are simply not in the position right now to save American agriculture.
Giant farms won't either, of course. For the most part, these are the farms that grow a single crop or raise large numbers of animals in close confinement. To sustain their unnatural existence, these megafarms, whether they're raising crops or animals, require enormous quantities of pesticides, fertilizers and antibiotics simply to survive. The result? Pollution, erosion and diseases that spread easily among factory-raised, immune-deficient animals.
Sadly, these farms aren't going away. In a perverse logic that defies nature, a farm needs to get ever larger and more specialized to survive. The number of farms with annual sales of more than $500,000 has increased 23 percent from 1997 to 2002. American farm policy, with a dazzling menu of subsidies, will keep us on this path for the foreseeable future.
The answer to this agricultural puzzle lies somewhere in the middle. Actually, it lies exactly in the middle, with the nation's 350,000 midsize farmers. These farmers, who are too big to sell directly to greenmarkets but too small to compete with highly subsidized industrial farms, cultivate more than 40 percent of our farmland.
Such farmers tend to be highly effective stewards of the land, with intimate knowledge of their farms and their communities. They are small-business owners - not corporations - and have proven records of being interested in protecting not just the economic health of the land, but its ecological health as well.
Unfortunately, these farmers are also on the way out. Midsize farms, with sales of $50,000 to $500,000, are declining rapidly. According to government figures, the number of these farms has declined 14 percent from 1997 to 2002, a net loss of nearly 65,000 farms.
According to Fred Kirschenmann of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State, it is no longer hard to imagine that most of the farms of the middle will be gone in another a decade.
Why should we care? Because our ways of farming are intimately linked to the destructive ways we're eating. Think about your local supermarket. There's fresh produce on the perimeter; but venture into the middle aisles and you're surrounded by processed, canned, preserved and frozen foods.
It may appear to be a world of variety, but look closer. The cookies, granola bars, crackers, chips, salad dressings and baby food all have one thing in common: they are made from derivations of corn, soy and sugar. About 70 percent of our agricultural land in the Midwest is devoted to producing these crops.
The farms that produce these single commodities average about 14,000 acres, roughly the size of Manhattan. And the future? Thomas Dorr, under secretary of agriculture for rural affairs, has predicted that 250,000-acre behemoths will dominate agriculture. If they do, the number of farms in Mr. Dorr's home state, Iowa, would drop to about 120 from 89,000.
That shouldn't come as a surprise. "Get big or get out" has been what farmers have been told for decades. And big farms have come with one big benefit: inexpensive food. Americans spend a smaller percentage of their disposable income for food than anyone else in the developed world. But these savings are illusory.
A funny thing happened on the way to our cheap food system. The books were being cooked in a kind of shell game, Enron-style. The real cost of these monocultures were not being properly accounted for: those taxpayer-financed subsidies ($143 billion over the last decade), the unfairness that results when our excess production gets dumped on developing countries that then can't develop their own resources, the environmental effects of pesticide runoff - the list goes on.
Midsize farms have the potential to be profitable without these hidden costs. After all, there's a large, existing market - school systems, hospitals, local grocery chains, food service distributors - for varied, healthier foods. These institutions, because of their size, cannot shop at the farmers' market. Even if they could, there would never be enough volume or consistency to meet their needs.
Midsize farms can meet those needs. They may be caught up in the commodity game right now - trying to expand, trying to focus on single crops - but that's largely because that's where the incentives are. For many of these farms, racing to keep up will be their downfall.
We need to encourage these farms to do what they do best: grow a variety of crops, raise a variety of animals, resist the temptation to grow too much.
How do we do this? By shifting the money. Our government now subsidizes the commodity production of grain - mostly corn and soybeans. We need to pull farmers out of the commodity trap and help them make the transition to growing the kinds of whole foods - fruits and vegetables - that would benefit us all. This is not another subsidy, and it's not welfare. It's seed money for a new frontier (actually, an old frontier) in agriculture.
A small number of midsize farms have already arrived. Niman Ranch with meats, and Organic Valley with milk, are examples of profitable alternatives to factory farms. Large food-service companies too, like Sysco, are responding to their customers' increased desire for products that have a story attached to them by reaching out to midsize farms.
Make no mistake: this change will require us to change our ways. We're going to have to support a diet that contains fewer processed, commodity-based foods. We're going to have to pay more for what we eat. We're going to have to contend with those who question whether it's practical to reduce subsidies for large farmers and food producers. And we're going to have to reward farmers for growing the food we want for our children.
These recommendations may seem bold to the point of audacious. But are they really? After all, what could be more audacious - or contrary to the rural heritage we celebrate this week - then great stretches of our landscape covered with 250,000-acre farms?