Last week, our neighborhood farmers market opened for the year. Braving the unseasonably wet and cold weather, my wife and I visited the market. We were excited to stock our larder with local produce and food, catch up with our favorite vendors, and see a few friends. Between May and November, we plan all our meals around what is available at the market and what we grow in our own garden. Over the last several years, the market has become the focal point of our civic and social lives.
Farmers markets can be found in neighborhoods throughout most American cities. Even small towns host farmers markets. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), over 8,200 farmers markets operated across the United States in 2014, doubling the total from 2004.
This is welcome news to small family farms and their workers and communities. Maybe they are gaining some market share from the big agricultural producers. That alone would make the growth of farmers markets a laudatory phenomenon.
Why are we as individuals and communities drawn to farmers markets? Isn’t it more convenient and far cheaper to do all our food shopping at discount retailers or supermarkets? Why support such a clear inefficiency?!
As the statistics presented above demonstrate, farmers markets are a relatively new addition to our social and cultural landscapes. I grew up in a small rust belt town surrounded by farms in Western New York, but I never saw a farmers market until I moved to Philadelphia. During my first summer living there, I was delighted by the sight of farmers selling fruit, vegetables, and canned goods on the sidewalk of a busy city street. Some of the produce still had dirt on it. This was something new. Something different.
What are the attractions of such markets? On a basic level, people want to purchase high quality, fresh, and often pesticide-free and non-genetically-modified food. People are making a specific decision concerning their health and their families’ health and they are willing to spend a little more money to support that decision. A consensus appears to be building that industrial, corporate agriculture and food manufacturing have gone too far with their scientific and technical “innovations.”
Shopping at local markets allows individuals to buy directly from the farmers and put his or her money directly into their pockets. This severs food production and food purchasing from the corporate structure. Inevitably, shoppers find a favorite baker or farmer at the market and return to them week after week, year after year. They trust their food and their advice. They find comfort in associating the ingredients of their Sunday dinners with a certain person. This is one of conscious, or maybe unconscious, attractions of farmers markets.
In a society dominated by corporate bodies with no loyalty to place or nation and a government inaccessible and unresponsive to all but the wealthy, Americans increasingly express feelings of isolation, powerlessness, and sadness. Drug addiction and suicide— often the only actions left to the desperate—are on the rise. In this context, farmers markets are growing, thriving, and spreading.
Farmers markets offer individuals an alternative to this bleak diagnosis. As I noted at the beginning, our local market is the center of our social life during the summer and fall. We see our neighbors, acquaintances, and friends. We talk to the vendors about their homes, families, and lives. We feel that we are a part of something important and positively impacting our neighborhood. In our small way, we’re helping to transform it, our chosen home, into a better place. Lest I forget, we can buy an astounding variety of delicious, nutritious, and healthy local food.
Maybe, that is why people want farmers markets.