The farmers’ market in Columbia is almost always packed. The parking lot at the Activity and Recreation Center (ARC) is full, spilling over into the adjacent school and grocery store parking lots. Market-goers are elbow-to-elbow looking for fresh-from-the-farm food. It’s become a Saturday morning gathering place.

I love the farmers’ market. There are several farmers, and Farm Bureau members, I know there selling eggs, pork, beef, vegetables and fruit. I enjoy visiting with them, asking how their season is going and purchasing some of what they’re selling. Sure, I could get my produce or meat at the grocery store and be just as confident that what I am purchasing was grown and raised with care. I often do. But, what I get from the farmers’ market is more than the food. It’s a direct connection to someone who cares as much about the food I eat as I do.

So much of what I do is streamlined for convenience, which is important in my hectic schedule. Spending a lot of time at the grocery store is not something I enjoy doing, but I do enjoy and appreciate the connection I can make at a farmers’ market. I will slow down for that.

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has declared August 7-13, 2016, National Farmers Market Week in recognition of the role farmers’ markets play in local economies and in connecting consumers in those communities to agriculture. This is the 17th year for this national week of recognition.

In Missouri, there are more than 250 farmers’ markets, according to the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service, placing our state in the top 10 in total number of markets. We are fortunate to have so many farmers working hard to sell to consumers directly, to make that connection.

However, beyond the local markets, farmers are reaching out to consumers through more accessible means than ever before. Organizations like the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance are fostering opportunities for consumers to have conversations with farmers, ranchers, scientists, food manufacturers and others involved in bringing food to the dinner table. Social media provides a way to connect with farmers directly, and just this past week, Missouri Farm Bureau along with the Missouri Department of Agriculture hosted an agritourism conference aimed at helping farmers make their farm business accessible to the public to create educational, nostalgic and entertaining family experiences and memories.

Like agritourism farms, the farmers’ markets fill a social need. You can meet farmers, talk to them, look them in the eye and get to know them. Find a farmers’ market next week and get to know farmers who work hard to grow and raise your food.