The USDA spent $13.75 billion on supports to industrial farms in 2010 and only $100 million on small farms - an equation O'Hara would like to see change.
And he is eager to see the existing Farmers Market Promotion Program extended when the federal farm bill comes up for a vote in 2012, providing modest funding for 100 to 500 farmers' markets per year.
Other issues aside, how can farmers' markets that are open for two to four hours at a time, one day a week, roughly nine months a year, benefit the local economy more than supermarkets that are open 10 or more hours a day, seven days a week, year-round?
"More money is retained locally when farmers sell directly to consumers," O'Hara says. "That doesn't happen at supermarkets."
A Farmers Market Coalition study in Easton, Pa., found that farmers' market shoppers there also shopped the rest of the downtown, boosting business there by $26,000 a week.
The coalition did not specifically study the impact in Philadelphia, but the local food system here had a regional economic impact of $49 billion in 2006, according to the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission.
Bob Pierson of Farm to City, a business that organizes and operates farmers' markets, says his first farmers' market, at South Street and Passyunk Avenue, brought in $40,000 in 1996 and $80,000 in 2010. Total 2010 sales at his 15 markets were $1.9 million.
That does not count the 30-plus farmers' markets operated by the Food Trust, or the dozens operated by suburban municipalities. Some rely on volunteers, but most hire paid professionals for behind-the-scenes planning and on-site administration.
Local farmers' markets certainly seem to be fueling expansion of the gourmet food-truck business. Little Baby's, Schoolboy, Mompops, Zsa's, Sweetbox, and Jimmies are among the local ice cream and cupcake crafters that make the rounds at neighborhood farmers' markets.
"I don't know if the job-generation claim is true," says Richard George, who chairs the food-marketing department at St. Joseph's University's Haub School of Business. "But the social impact is real."
"You see your neighbors, you meet the farmer . . . you get a recipe. There's a really neat crystallization process happening," says George, fresh from speaking to the National Farm Direct-Marketing Association (farms such as Linvilla Orchards, that are open year-round with pick-your-own options, pumpkin mazes, bakeries, and more).
The standard supermarket experience is all about getting in and out quickly, spending as little time and money as possible.
Farmers' markets encourage lingering.
Every Saturday there's a kids' corral, featuring storytelling or puppet shows at the Glenside Farmers Market. The Upper Merion Township Farmers Market showcases local musicians, magicians, and pet rescues.
Besides, says George, "everybody loves farmers. Farming is the number-one most respected profession in the world."
Farming reflects our belief in the Great American Narrative - a story of honest, dirt-under-the-nails, backbreaking work that is subject to the whims of nature but from which we all benefit.
Psychologically, farmers make families feel grounded by reconnecting them with the land. That's evident, George says, in the growing popularity of farm-stay vacations.
There is at least the perception, George says, that farmers' markets honor the small and sustainable, eschewing the use of chemicals that harm the air and the earth, while supermarkets do not.
"That's not necessarily true," George says, "but it's the public perception."
"And this wave of popularity has not fully crested. The generation after us, the 20-year-olds, are more likely to go to farmers' markets too," George says. "It's their weekly Woodstock."
Contact Inquirer staff writer Dianna Marder at 215-854-4211 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her recent work at http://go.philly. com/diannamarder and follow her on twitter, @marderd.