As we reach the end of the first month of the East Center Street Farmers Market, I’ve been reflecting quite a bit on the history and enduring qualities of farmers markets. Our friends and neighbors gather together to share the products that they have grown, raised, and made with the rest of the community. There is something inherently nostalgic in the experience of visiting booths, hearing the stories of the craftspeople and farmers, and filling my market bag with fresh fruits & veggies, handmaid soaps, salves, honey, and tea. A market is based on ideals of community, health & wellness, environmental sustainability, and education. With mottos like “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” and “Eat Fresh, Eat Local,” a farmers market is more than just a place to get some fruit, it’s an avenue for growth, learning, and community. For our local artisans and value-added producers, a farmers market is a vital small business incubator—a place to build their brand, facilitate sales, and interact face-to-face with their customers.
Whilst investigating the history of farmers markets in the United States, I was surprised to find that the “old days” of farmers markets were quite a long time ago! In fact, there was a period in our history where farmers markets were extremely rare—in 1948, when the USDA conducted their first agricultural census, there were only around 100 farmers markets in the entire country.
The first farmers markets of record were opened during the colonial era—Boston (1634), Hartford (1643), New York City (1686), and Philadelphia (1693). In those early days of our national history, farmers markets were the primary venue for access to fresh fruits and vegetables. But as cities grew in size and density, farmland was pushed further and further from the urban centers. Innovations in transportation and cooled storage allowed farmers to ship their product in larger quantities over longer distances. The first age of farmers markets was on the decline as the corner grocer replaced the farm stand as the primary source for produce.
It was 1943 in San Francisco—a time of war rations & victory gardens. Farmers in Sonoma watched their fruit rot in the fields, unable to sell their produce to understaffed canneries. Meanwhile, in San Francisco, only 50 miles away, produce was scarce and expensive. John Brucato was the man to bridge the gap between the hungry urban masses and rural farmers desperately in need of a venue to sell their produce. Brucato leveraged his graduate degree in viticulture to acquire a position with the San Francisco Water Department overseeing their vast farmland holdings scattered over important aquifers in Northern California. Additionally, he wrote a regular article in the San Francisco News focusing on Victory Gardens and oversaw the San Francisco Victory Garden program. In August, Brucato arranged for a group of farmers to park their farm trucks on a lot in San Francisco to sell their produce. The first Thursday there were only 6 farmers, on Friday the number grew to 20 participating growers, and on Saturday there were 135.
Across the country, farmers markets have continued to gain in popularity since the 1970s and the rise of the slow food movement. According to the Department of Agriculture, there are more than 8700 farmers markets operating in the United States. These markets are continuing to gain popularity as they have reached another niche in the market by becoming incubators for small business. Start-up food and craft businesses can utilize the market to test their products without having to invest in a traditional brick-and-mortar store. Cottage food producers can work to build their brand and their customer base by sharing their stories with market-goers without assuming the overhead expenses that could threaten their sustainability in the early stages of business development. This history of small business incubation is not a completely new role for farmers markets! I was particularly delighted to find an obscure note in the National Archives detailing a purchase that Thomas Jefferson made at a farmers market in 1804. He bought one of the first iterations of a refrigerator from a Quaker dairyman named Thomas Moore. Moore’s “refrigerator” was an oval cedar tub inside a tin box covered with rabbit skin and cloth—he designed it to transport his butter to market.
It is amazing to be a part of an enduring national tradition—especially one that for decades was on the brink of extinction. Come down to the East Center Street Farmers Market every Friday night until September—visit with your farmers, celebrate Lahontan Valley bees with local honey, chat with new business owners about their products, be a part of our little local community!