In a resounding endorsement of locally grown produce, the old "town square," and reasonable prices, farmers markets here and across the country continue to multiply, with at least 10 new seasonal markets opening in the Philadelphia region this year.

In addition, Whole Foods, piggybacking on that popularity, will host weekly or monthly farmers markets chain- wide for the first time this spring, at six stores in this area as well as others across the country. These farmers markets will be set up under tents where space allows, and in front of stores or in parking lots on the smaller properties.

"Our customers care about local produce and artisan food products, so this program makes sense," said Sarah Kenney, regional marketing manager for Whole Foods. "It's a great 'first date' [for customers and Whole Foods] to get acquainted with local farmers and producers."

All this when the number of farmers markets in the United States has already risen more than 250 percent in the last decade, from 1,755 in 1994 to more than 4,385 in 2006.

The Farmers Market Coalition reports that some 30,000 farmers are now selling their products directly to more than 3 million consumers a year at such markets.

The numbers keep climbing.

The Food Trust, the local nonprofit agency whose mission is to ensure access to affordable, nutritious food, is sponsoring eight of the new markets this year, bringing its program's total to 26 farmers markets.

"We are opening the city's first Sunday farmers market at the Headhouse Square Shambles," said David Adler, the trust's director. "It will be a large Union Square-style market with 25 to 40 vendors carrying everything from fresh greens to quail."

The trust has also expanded electronic food-stamp access at the markets, Adler said, which means eligible families can use their benefits at their farm markets, making healthful (often organic) fresh foods accessible at affordable prices, with produce often harvested and sold the same day.

On a more personal level, farmers markets are often the most effective and profitable venue for selling crops for small growers like Ron Weaver in Ephrata, who started selling at Clark Park's Thursday market in 1991 and will be there when it opens for the 2007 season the first week in June.

Weaver has grown his business steadily by growing crops that sell well, that his retail customers want - early-season hothouse tomatoes, heat-resistant lettuces harvested through the summer, and seedless cucumbers, all grown free of chemical sprays. He also sells basil and other herbs and bedding plants (flowering annuals such as petunias), mostly at wholesale.

His farm, Homestead Gardens - an acre plot and greenhouse - began as a hobby about 23 years ago and is now a full-time endeavor for most of the year, augmented by a part-time winter job.

New to Clark Park are poultry items from Griggstown Quail Farm & Market in Princeton.

For larger operations such as Griggstown, direct sales at community markets help to cushion fluctuations of price and demand on the wholesale side of their business.

Griggstown has added three Philadelphia market days to its schedule this year - Clark Park on Saturdays and Thursdays and Headhouse on Sundays (starting July 1). They will also be at five of the Whole Foods farm markets, and will continue their participation in five New Jersey community markets - Bernardsville, Lawrenceville, Montgomery, Moorestown (starting in June) and West Windsor.

"Farmers markets are a trend that is only going to get bigger," said Matthew Sytsema, Griggstown's executive chef and store manager.

"Consumers want to know where their food is coming from and what goes into it. They want to talk to the farmer, to the chef."

"Every market has its niche, and its glitch," says Sytsema, who sold poultry at the Collingswood market until business there slacked off. He's hoping that markets in Philadelphia and Moorestown will be a better fit.

"The educated consumer is our best customer. A produce guy can put out his tomatoes or greens for all to see, but it takes a real salesman to move poultry and pot pies packed in coolers, especially when people ask, "Why should I spend $9.50 for your chicken when I can get Perdue chicken for $3 at the supermarket?"

Few are familiar enough with the Griggstown farm to know that they supply the gourmet meat supplier, D'Artagnan, a with more than 200,000 all-natural, free-range birds a year that go to top restaurants, from the Triumph Brewery here to Jean Georges in New York.

To attract market customers, Sytsema, like other growers, relies on diversity, producing an attractive array of fresh fruit pies to draw customers to Griggstown's table.

The Department of Agriculture pegs farmers-market sales at $1 billion of consumer spending annually, a small but, for many, a very significant part of the food business. But farmers markets bring more than economic growth, more than meaningful interaction between farmers and consumers.

They bring a sense of community, reviving a "town square" tradition lost in many urban neighborhoods.

It is evident at Clark Park and markets throughout the region; at mobile "street corner" markets, where single vendors sell produce from the back of a truck; and on Sunday mornings in Washington, D.C., at toney Dupont Circle, where farmers occupy most of a city block, selling fresh local and seasonal foods.

Food markets become community gathering places, not just for farmers and shoppers, but for artisans, neighborhood bake sales, street musicians, and vendors who offer crafts, flea-market finds and miscellany, as is the case at Clark Park.

The importance of farmers markets was nowhere more evident than in New Orleans, where the Crescent City market was one of the first traditions restored, reopening little more than a year after Katrina hit. It provided hope, as well as one of the few fresh-food sources for struggling survivors.

In an article in the current issue of Grit, the rural lifestyle magazine, vendor Lucy Capdebos is quoted:

"The reopening was a wonderful day in New Orleans. Grocery stores didn't have any fresh produce, and people came from all over," she said.

"Some people had never been to a farmers market before and experienced how much better- tasting everything is. Now the market is bigger than ever."

What's in Season?

Fresh locally grown produce at area farmers markets:

Current

Arugula

Asparagus (through June)

Greenhouse tomatoes

Herbs (basil, cilantro, etc.)

Kale

Leeks

Lettuces (ongoing)

Mushrooms (ongoing)

Onions (through Sept.)

Peas

Radishes

Spinach

Late May, early June

Collards

Dill

Early strawberries

Turnips

Mid- to late June

Beets (through Dec.)

Broccoli

Cabbage

Cauliflower

Celery

Summer squash (to Oct.)

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Want to Know?

For information on the Food Trust or its markets, call 215-568-0830 or visit www.thefoodtrust.org.

For information on Farm to City, its markets and consumer-supported agriculture, visit www.farmtocity.org or www.csacenter.org.

For information on the Griggstown Quail Farm & Market, visit www.griggstownquailfarm.

com.

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Asparagus alla Parmigiana

Makes 4 to 6 servings

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2 pounds asparagus, trimmed to same length (2 bunches)

4 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened (1/2 stick)

1 cup finely grated Parmigiano Reggiano (2 to 3 ounces)

Kosher or sea salt, freshly ground black pepper and grated nutmeg, to taste

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1. Preheat the broiler. Steam or boil asparagus until it is tender-crisp, bright green but still firm. Drain well.

2. Arrange the spears in layers in a shallow metal baking pan (a paella pan works well). Dot with butter bits. Sprinkle with grated Parmigiano Reggiano.

3. Broil on high until browned and bubbling, 5 to 10 minutes.

4. Serve at once, in the pan.

- From Starting with Ingredients by Aliza Green (Running Press, 2006)

Per serving (based on 6): 159 calories, 9 grams protein, 6 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams sugar, 12 grams fat, 33 milligrams cholesterol, 288 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber

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Spinach and Mushroom Soup

Makes 8 servings

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2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1½ pounds yellow onions, roughly chopped

½ pound carrots, chopped

½ pound celery, chopped

2 pounds button mushrooms, quartered (unless small)

3 teaspoons minced garlic

10 to 12 cups vegetable stock

1 cup heavy cream

Salt and pepper, to taste

1 pound spinach, chopped

1/4 cup chopped basil

Optional garnishes: sour cream and chives or orange zest, or sauteed mushrooms

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1. In a 41/2- to 6-quart pot, heat the oil on low. Sweat the onions, carrots and celery until tender, about 15 minutes.

2. Stir in the mushrooms. Cook on high heat for 15 minutes, stirring well every 5 minutes. When the mushroom liquid has been released, reduce heat. Cook at a simmer, stirring often, until the liquid is almost cooked off.

3. Stir in the garlic and cook for 5 minutes.

4. Add the cream to bind the vegetables; bring to a boil.

5. Add the vegetable stock, bring to a boil and simmer for 30 minutes. Remove from heat and add salt and pepper to taste.

6. Still off heat, stir in the spinach and basil. Puree the soup with a hand-held (immersion) blender or blender, in batches.

7. Garnish as desired. Serve hot.

- Family recipe from Ben Johnson, sous chef, The Plough and The Stars

Per serving: 244 calories, 7 grams protein, 21 grams carbohydrates, 10 grams sugar, 17 grams fat, 41 milligrams cholesterol, 1,306 milligrams sodium, 8 grams dietary fiber.

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Arugula, Mushroom and Radish Salad

Makes 4 to 6 servings

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8 cups packed arugula (2 large bunches), washed, patted dry, stems trimmed

2 cups thinly sliced mushrooms

1 cup shredded radish

3 tablespoons olive oil

11/2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Parmesan cheese curls (formed using a vegetable peeler)

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1. In a large salad bowl, combine the arugula, mushrooms and shredded radish. Drizzle the oil over top and toss gently.

2. Sprinkle the lemon juice on the salad. Season with salt and pepper, to taste, and toss gently again.

3. Serve salad with a sprinkling of Parmesan curls on top.

Per serving (based on 6): 108 calories, 4 grams protein, 3 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams sugar, 9 grams fat, 6 milligrams cholesterol, 119 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.

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Contact food writer Marilynn Marter at mmarter@phillynews.com or call 215-854-5743.