Brief history of farmer’s markets

brief history of farmer's markets

St Louis Market in 1912 by Marguerite Martyn

This weekend I toured my local farmer’s market. The day was perfectly lovely: children’s laughter resonating in the distance, sunshine glistening on my shoulders, and my grandmother’s wicker purse in tow. Chatting with passionate vendors reminded me of past trips to beloved vintage shops. While I do enjoy my Target runs, there is something unique and fulfilling about a personalized shopping experience. The diversity of offerings at the market reflected the bounty of my community. All of this joyful retail nestled in the center of downtown got me wondering about the backdrop of the farmer’s market movement. Join me as we take a tour through key moments in a brief history of farmer’s markets.

The first American farmer’s market dates back to 1730 Pennsylvania. In fact, the first farmer’s market was purposefully woven into the city’s urban design. Original town planning documents specified a 120 square foot lot in the heart of town. While the scale seems small to our modern perspective, this patch of land served many vital purposes to Lancaster. People have gathered around food for generations – it’s part of who we are, no matter where we live. Across the world families gather in kitchens, friends connect around dining tables, and people meet during food festivals. Yummy, fresh, unique fare brings us together and that is a truth the people of Lancaster celebrated with their farmer’s market. The celebration in Lancaster has been a nearly 300 year-long party and it shows no signs of stopping. Historians suspect that at one point, this central location was home to nearly 400 vendors.

brief history of farmer's markets

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In this day and age, with environmental concerns over global supply chains and food processing, farmer’s markets are enjoying a renaissance. The U.S.D.A. wagers that there are about 8,000 farmer’s markets up and running today! For my part, I can understand the appeal: cost-effective, locally sourced offerings; directly supporting the local economy; and finding unique treasures. Farmer’s markets are like a breath of fresh air in the mega-mart, warehouse retail deserts some of us live in. For the founders of Lancaster the market wasn’t a diversion from Costco, it was the life-blood of their town. The phrase “meet me at the market” became an expression of friendship, an invitation, and a cultural touchstone.

While these markets were (and continue to be) a gathering place for everyday Americans, we know of at least one President who didn’t miss a chance to support his local farmers. Files from 1806 show that President Jefferson was a frequent patron of the Georgetown market. During the 19th century the market movement reached its zenith with most towns sporting not only a farmer’s market, but also supporting “curb markets” (additional, informal spots where farmers would set up stands off major streets). However, with the advent of personal refrigerators and a post-war consumer culture that espoused the virtues of convenience, the farmer’s market movement waned. The grocery store as we know it today first burst onto the scene in 1912, setting the stage for our one-stop shop culture. But, as we’ve seen time and time again, what is old is new again. Trends like slow food, farm-to-table, and shopping small are giving farmer’s markets are boost. Twenty years ago revenue from farmer’s markets collectively passed the $1 billion mark and everything points to that number strengthening. So, dear reader, in addition to dressing like a vintage fashionista I invite you to also eat like one! Check out a farmer’s market in your area and take a stroll through American history. Just ask yourself: What would Jefferson do?

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