Changing more than just our diets
Today's best farmers markets boast engaged vendors, enterprising organizers, and hyper-local efforts to serve their communities.
Fri, May 01, 2009 at 01:39 PM
FARM CHARM: Farmers markets have become even more impressive than just amazing food offerings.
A lot bustling with shoppers perusing booths laden with produce, local honey and cheeses, maybe even bouquets of peonies and sunflowers—20 years ago, this would have been a rare sight in most American cities. Today, farmers’ markets are the lifeblood of a thriving movement to eat locally and sustainably. Americans are relearning what their great-grandparents knew—food fresh from the farm just tastes better.
Initially, we set out to compile an updated list of the best producer-to-consumer markets in the country. But after canvassing friends and food lovers, we discovered that farmers’ markets have evolved beyond the familiar model introduced by pioneers like San Francisco’s Ferry Building and New York City’s Greenmarket. From Hollywood, California to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, markets are doing more than providing good food and keeping local producers afloat. They’re also improving health care, supporting underserved populations, spurring urban renewal, even bridging cultural divides and redefining what it means to be organic.
A new generation of paradigm-shifters has set its own standards for success—without sacrificing attributes like accessibility, quality control, and a strict commitment to sustainability that drew people to farmers’ markets in the first place. Thanks to their ability to adapt to the changing needs of their communities, these ten innovators hint at a future when farmers’ markets might provide every American with fresh, affordable food—and more.
Seventeen years ago, when organizers chose a two-block section between Hollywood and Sunset Boulevards for their market, they saw it as a chance to take back the street. The once glamorous strip had become one of the seediest in LA. Today, the Hollywood Farmers’ Market is the largest of its kind (producer-to-consumer) in Los Angeles County. Each week the market draws 150 farmers, vendors, and artisans, who offer California-grown produce, free-range poultry, and even crepes and omelets prepared on-site.
Saturdays and Wednesdays (year-round)
Texas doesn’t require that vendors sell their own produce, but this growers-only market does. Thanks to its rigorous farm inspection program, the market boasts a delicious array of locally raised foods, including heirloom black-eyed and zipper peas in June, as well as southwestern favorites like empanadas. The market’s inspection program also serves as an organic certification of sorts for produce farmers, some of whom have opted out of the USDA’s certification program either because of the cost and paperwork involved, or because the Austin market offers a more sustainable, community-centric model.
Saturdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays (April–December)
Founded in 1992, Portland’s market is one of the few in the country that receives no government aid. Instead, its four locations are funded exclusively through vendors’ fees, fundraising, and sponsorships. The market also hosts professionally taught cooking courses kids can attend while their parents shop for local seafood, fresh breads, and fruit from the Columbia Valley’s outstanding nearby orchards.
Tuesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays (year-round)
Lancaster County farmers have sold their goods at Central Market for nearly 300 years—first from the backs of wagons in the 1730s, and later in the Romanesque Revival building now on-site. Throughout its long life, America’s oldest continually operating market and its vendors—some running family stalls for five generations—have kept local traditions alive despite changing times and fortunes. Today, Amish farmers sell meat and produce, other vendors offer Pennsylvania Dutch specialties like scrapple and chow chow (a vegetable relish), and everyone agrees the future looks bright. “Ten years ago there were empty stands,” says vendor Nelson Rohrer. “Now there’s a waiting list of about 20 vendors.”
Every day (year-round)
Downtown Seattle is a wasteland in terms of convenient grocery shopping—except for Pike Place, one of the few spots in the neighborhood where you can find fresh produce, meat, and dairy. The market has also helped support local Hmong refugees, who first moved to the Seattle area from Vietnam in the 1970s. Don’t leave without buying one of the Hmong vendors’ famed bouquets of daffodils, tulips, or other seasonal flowers.
Fair Haven, Connecticut
In 2005, organizers at the Fair Haven market (one of four Connecticut markets run by City Seed) were searching for an innovative way to continue providing access to low-income residents while also ensuring economic viability for vendors. Their solution? Start a community-supported market (CSM). Similar to a CSA (community-supported agriculture), in which people purchase shares of produce from an individual farm, the CSM pools a portion of each farmer’s produce (the rest is still available for on-site purchase) and sells shares to local businesses. The setup provides guaranteed income for farmers and fresh, affordable food for local residents. And CitySeed now offers subsidized shares to seniors and low-income families. Similar plans are underway 30 miles south at the Westport Farmers’ Market, which was founded in part by Paul Newman.
Santa Fe, New Mexico
Saturdays (year-round); Tuesdays (May–October); Thursdays (July–September)
Until this year, Santa Fe’s market hopped from parking lot to parking lot nearly every season. Now, its 150 members have found a permanent home in a new mixed-use, LEED-certified building, part of a growing downtown development that locals expect will revitalize the area. Nearly all of the market’s vendors come from the fifteen New Mexican counties north of Albuquerque, and they sell everything from grass-fed buffalo to native Chimayo chilies to bread made from locally grown wheat.
Varies by location
In 2003, Preston Maring, a doctor, helped start a farmers’ market at his Kaiser Permanente Hospital in Oakland to help show the link between fresh produce and good health. The market was an immediate success, and Maring has since helped set up 29 additional markets at Kaiser Hospitals in California; Colorado; Washington, DC; Georgia; Hawaii; and Oregon.
Webb City, Missouri
Tuesdays and Fridays (April–October); Saturdays (June–July)
A recent influx of Latino migrant workers and Hmong farmers sparked tension over immigration laws in this small, mostly white community. To help ease the tension, the Webb City Farmers’ Market hired Hmong and Spanish translators, installed wireless EBT machines that allow vendors to accept food stamps, and helped Hmong farmers set up shop at the market. “We’ve worked very hard to make this market accessible to everyone,” says market manager Eileen Nichols.
Brooklyn, New York
The Brooklyn neighborhood of East New York is one of the poorest in all the five boroughs (it’s still hard to find fresh produce at local bodegas). Yet green thumbs in the neighborhood—mostly South American, Caribbean, Russian, and African immigrants—have cultivated about 60 community gardens and empty lots, and around 30 of those farmers sell their mostly organic produce at East New York Farms. And now, thanks to aspiring local beekeepers, the market also offers a stellar variety of unfiltered honey.
Story by Christine Cyr. This article originally appeared in Plenty in July 2008.