Drive through the rolling foothills of the Appalachian range in southwestern Virginia and you'll come across Abingdon, one of the oldest towns west of the Blue Ridge Mountains. If it happens to be a Saturday morning, you might think there's a party going on—every week between 7 a.m. and noon, more than 1,000 people gather in the parking lot on Main Street, next to the police station. This is Abingdon's farmers' market. "For folks here, this is part of the Saturday morning ritual," says Anthony Flaccavento, a farmer who is also executive director of Appalachian Sustainable Development, a nonprofit organization working in the Appalachian region of Virginia and Tennessee.
It's a relatively recent ritual. Five years ago, the farmers' market wasn't as vibrant and it attracted just nine local farmers who sold a few different kinds of veggies. Today, there's a fourfold jump, with 36 farmers who regularly show up with a dizzying array of eggplants, blueberries, pecans, home-churned butter, and meat from animals raised on the farms encircling the town. It's a sign of the times: Hundreds of farmers' markets are springing up all around the country. The U.S. Agriculture Dept. says the number of such markets reached 4,692 in 2006, its most recent year of data, up 50% from five years earlier. Sales from those markets reached $1 billion.