WILLIAMSTOWN -- If anyone can be considered a pioneer in the locally grown food movement in the Berkshires, it's probably Bill Stinson of Peace Valley Farms.

Stinson has been operating his farm since 1973. He has been an advocate of locally grown food since then. And his stance hasn't always been popular.

"It was like we had leprosy," he said.

Today? Williams College is one of his biggest customers. And so is Berkshire Medical Center, two of the largest employers in the county.

"I'm proud they've bought into this concept," said Stinson. "Particularly BMC."

The popularity of locally grown foods is jumping exponentially, in both rural and urban areas. According to a 2010 survey by the federal Food and Drug Administration, direct sales of agricultural products to consumers totaled $1.2 billion in 2007. That is 0.4 percent of total agricultural sales. That seems insignificant, but from 1997-2007, direct sales increased by 105 percent ($619 million),

In that same period, the number of farms selling directly to consumers increased 24 percent, despite an overall reduction in the number of farms nationally by about a half-percentage point.

Over the weekend, the Holiday Farmers Markets, held in Great Barrington on Saturday and in Williamstown on Sunday, both had record-breaking numbers of attendees, according to Barbara Zheutlin, executive director of Berkshire Grown, who sponsored the two events.

The idea behind holiday markets, said Zheutlin, is to offer fresh vegetables, fruits and meat products to shoppers just before Thanksgiving. There will be two more Holiday Farmers Markets the weekend of Dec. 15-16 for the Christmas holidays, she said.

The growth reflects a national trend. Across the country, farmers markets, both seasonal and year-round, have in creased from 1,755 in 1994 to 6,132 in 2011, according to a survey by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Thomas Fillio, of Ioka Valley Farm in Hancock, mans a table on Sunday during the Holiday Farmers Market at the Williams College Town House.
Thomas Fillio, of Ioka Valley Farm in Hancock, mans a table on Sunday during the Holiday Farmers Market at the Williams College Town House. (Kayla Galway / Berkshire Eagle)

For some farmers, the reason they attend farmers markets is relatively basic: economics. Jan Johnson of Berkshire Wildflower Honey in Great Barrington said she attends an average of 60 local farmers markets annually, selling a variety of honey-based and beeswax products.

It pays off. About 40 percent of her gross revenue comes from farmers market sales.

Other farms see more modest results. But financial reasons are not the only ones.

Beatrice Berle, of Berle Farm in Hoosick Falls, N.Y., sees farmers markets as a way to show her thanks for her customers. Berle ferments a special house cheese for her farmers market customers.

"It a way to show our appreciation for their support," she said.

For customers, it's about convenience, freshness and knowing the farmer who provides your fruits and vegetables, according to Shannon Barsotti of Longview Farm in Pownal, Vt. Barsotti was also working as a manager of the Williamstown Farmers Market.

"I like the idea of the non-commercial aspect of it," said Kate Glass of Hancock, who was shopping at the Sweet Brook farmstand, owned by Peter and Beth Phelps. "I enjoy shopping here and supporting local farmers.

"And to me, the food tastes better," she said.

Glass is right. According to another FDA survey from 2005, fresh produce is usually served less than 40 hours after it is harvested, which leads to a fresher tasting product.