RALEIGH — Jonathan Johnson cant slice peaches fast enough.
With his pocket knife and thick thumbs, he peels off the juiciest pieces of fruit to be passed out for free.
Peach? Free sample? Want to try a peach?, his two teenaged workers chime.
The Sunday morning air smells like dirt and rain, and hangs low on the crowd under this shed at the NC Farmers Market off Lake Wheeler Road.
Johnson fills one pint-sized plastic bowl with free samples. An empty one appears in front of him.
As he wipes the sweat from his brow, a familiar voice calls out to him.
What have you got for me today? says Donnell Johnson, of Raleigh.
The peach farmer grins. He had an answer prepared: You know Ive got some ripe ones picked out for you over here, he says.
It doesnt get much better than this, Donnell Johnson says. These (peaches) were picked yesterday, and I get to buy them from this man here, whos just a great guy.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, more and more farmers are forming this face-to-face relationship with their customers. Last week, the USDA announced a 9.6 percent increase in the number of farmers markets listed on its national directory from 2011 to 2012. There are now 7,864 farmers markets registered with the USDA, up from 7,175 in 2011.
Kathleen Merrigan, U.S. Deputy Agriculture Secretary, says the increase comes from a growing push to buy local foods and a yearning to reconnect with farmers.
We see (buying) local as the biggest food trend right now, Merrigan said in a press conference. .
North Carolina is among the states leading the push, boasting the 10th-most farmers markets for the third year in a row.
Though NCs numbers dipped from 2011 to 2012 217 markets last year to 202 this year the number of farmers markets in North Carolina has risen 11 percent since 2010.
Merrigan attributed the new markets to the 10% Campaign a program formed in July 2010 by N.C. State University, the N.C. Cooperative Extension, the Center for Environmental Farming Systems, and the Golden LEAF Foundation. The program urges businesses, municipalities, and individuals to spend at least 10 percent of their food budget on locally grown foods.
We help people connect with local farmers that they didnt know were there, said Teisha Wymore, coordinator of the NC 10% Campaign.
Program participants are asked to log their local food purchases and send weekly email updates to the 10% Campaign. The group then updates its website www.nc10percent.com to show how much money has been spent since the start of the campaign.
As of Sunday, 5,517 people and 674 businesses recorded spending more than $19 million on local food since July 2010, according to the website. On Aug. 1, 2011, 3,925 people and 322 businesses recorded spending $5.7 million since July 2010, according to the website.
Wymore says participants consider the initiative a no brainer because of its benefits to the local economy.
North Carolinians spend about $35 billion a year on food, she said. If they spent 10 percent of their budgets locally, wed see more than $3 billion infused in the local economy every year.
According to Merrigan, the USDA official, farmers earn on average, 14 cents for every dollar spent on their products bought through grocery stores.
The local markets sure help us with the stuff thats too ripe to sell to grocers, said Adam Myers, of Naylors Produce in Spiveys Corner, as he lifted a watermelon from the back of his pickup.
And folks like Judy and Michael Kluczykowski of Clayton eat it up, because, after all, fresh food is better for you.
This is our first time to this farmers market, Judy Kluczykowski said. Were trying to get away from those foods that may have pesticides ... or ingredients on labels that weve never heard of.