A festival atmosphere engulfs Lexington Farmers Market on Saturday mornings in Cheapside Park.
It's a place where farmers' tables brim with fresh vegetables and flowers and the aisles are crowded with shoppers — including families pushing strollers, couples walking hand-in-hand or with dogs on leashes — to the background sounds of entertainment provided by musicians, from beginning violin students to accomplished bluegrass artists.
On a peak Saturday in the middle of summer, the market attracts as many as 5,000 people.
Recently, the American Farmland Trust in its annual contest named Lexington Farmers Market the No.1 farmers market in Kentucky, and eighth among the Top 10 large farmers markets around the country.
Farmers markets have increased in popularity across the state as people want to keep fresher and locally grown food, said Sharon Spencer, farmers market specialist in the Kentucky Department of Agriculture.
There are 147 markets registered with Spencer's office for 2012, with more than 2,490 vendors. Out of 120 counties, 101 have at least one farmers market.
"Sometimes the market's completely shoulder-to-shoulder, other times a bit slower, but you can always feel the buzz, and that buzz doesn't happen without great vendors. And that's what we've got," said Jeff Dabbelt, manager of the Lexington Farmers Market.
Individual farmer sales ranged from $1,000 to $100,000 last year, with a couple of those numbers on either end, Dabbelt said.
"The average farmer selling at the market takes in around $34,000," he said.
Dabbelt won't have an estimate on how the market performed financially until about February, when vendors voluntarily report sales. In 2008, when demolition at the former Vine Street location had begun, the market had about $2 million in sales, down from almost $2.5 million in 2007. In 2011, total sales for market members was $2.4 million.
"The market has been a source of revenue that has allowed a lot of farmers to keep the family farm," Dabbelt said.
In many farm families, at least one member works off the farm.
Beth Tillery drives 70 miles from Jackson County to the Lexington market where she sells eggs, poultry, beef, flowers and gourds. She earns about $15,000 a year.
"It's not a lot, but it helps us stay on the farm," said Tillery. Her husband Doug works off the farm.
At Hillside Heritage Farm in Garrard County, John Contini raises older breeds of hogs — or heritage pork — that few modern farmers raise anymore. He sells 35 types of sausage products and various cuts of pork at the Lexington market.
He brings four freezers filled with pork to market every Saturday. "This is our third year; sales have gone up every year," Contini said. The first year he had sales of $25,000; he expects sales to approach $50,000 this year.
Contini sold vegetables at the Garrard County Market until he started specializing in pork in the Lexington market. "This is head and shoulders above anything we've ever done," he said.
Bourbon County farmer Maggie Jenkins, when told of the market's rankings, said, "That's awesome. When you're No. 1, what else is there?" She added, "The market is always No. 1 in my book, whether somebody votes us that way or not."
For farmers like Jenkins and her husband, Billy, the market has developed into an important source of income, filling the gap of dwindling tobacco income, a traditional Kentucky crop.
The Jenkinses saw their income from raising tobacco decline in the mid-1990s.
"We thought it was time for us to try something else," Maggie Jenkins said. The couple switched to raising strawberries, vegetables and cut flowers.
Jenkins did not know the exact amount of sales she had in 2011, but "We're doing really good. The decision to raise for farmers market has been very good for us," she said.
The market opens the first of April and continues through the end of November. In the winter, farmers sell in the atrium of Victorian Square.
The market has expanded to selling five days a week. On Saturdays, the market is set up in Cheapside Park; on Sundays it's on Southland Drive. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, farmers sell in a lot at South Broadway and West Maxwell Street.
This summer the market opened on Wednesday afternoons in the Commonwealth Stadium parking lot on University Drive.
Some farmers also sell to restaurants or take produce to Louisville and Cincinnati.
"Still, whether farming is a hobby or truly a family's sole means of income, there's no doubt the arrangement with our market is beneficial," Dabbelt said.
Lexington's 37-year-old market moved from its longtime Vine Street location to Cheapside Park at the beginning of the 2009 growing season. There were many bumps in the road.
"Moving one block was a big change in many ways. It took re-training for our farmers and customers to know where to go, where to park," Dabbelt said. "It was chaotic."
The economic meltdown that year hit some vendors hard. The Jenkinses said many regulars didn't follow them to the new market. They saw sales decline 60 percent that first summer. "Our older customers didn't know where to park, didn't want to walk an extra block. It was pretty hard," Billy Jenkins said.
But in 2010, when the new Fifth Third Pavilion in Cheapside Park opened, it made a positive impact on the market.
"It was hard to move from Vine Street, but it was for the best. I saw a huge change when the pavilion opened," Tillery said. "Something about a covered space gives you a feeling of home."
In the past three years the market's products have diversified, said market president Mac Stone.
Customers can buy homemade pasta, various cheeses, milk, bread, eggs, ice cream, sorbet, heritage pork, free range chickens and herb mixtures. These are in addition to the wide range of vegetables, fruit and flowers traditionally sold.
"We've gained many younger customers," Stone said. "Many of them don't know how to cook like some of our older customers, so we do a lot more educating. But we like that."
Beverly Fortune: (859) 231-3251.Twitter: @BFortune2010