North Carolina ranks 10th in the number of farmers markets in the U.S., according to a report released today by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. With 217 farmers markets, N.C. is the only Southern state in the top 10.

California ranks first with 729.

The numbers are self-reported, said Deputy Agriculture Secretary Kathleen Merrigan, during a media briefing, and thus likely are undercounted. The report was released in conjunction with National Farmers Market week, which runs Aug. 7-13.

Nationwide, there are 7,175 farmers markets—an increase of 17 percent over last year.

“It goes back to the yearning for the 99 percent of Americans who are no longer connected to the farm to reconnect [with it],” Merrigan said. “To know your farmer, to know your food.”

These markets also help launch the careers of young farmers. The average age of an American farmer is 57. “We are on the threshold of a generational transfer and we need strategies to bring in young people,” Merrigan said.

Of the nation’s farmers markets, only 12 percent reported that they accept SNAP benefits—formerly known as food stamps—onsite. (Several Triangle-area markets, including Carrboro, accept these benefits.) While that number is small, it nonetheless represents a 16 percent increase over last year.

People enrolled in the SNAP program made 453,711 purchases at farmers markets and direct farm marketing outlets nationwide, with an average purchase amount of $16.69, the report stated.

“People are looking for fresh—and for that taste experience,” Merrigan said. “People are looking for community; farmers markets are where people come together.”