Farms Finest: Growing healthy communities with farmers markets
May 27, 2014
Just around the corner, mixed with the cool alpine air, will be seasonal views of abundance. Outdoor markets are arriving soon, with their buckets of cut flowers and bins of organic vegetables, all mingling irresistibly with aromas of freshly baked bread.
Yes, it is getting close to farmers-market season in Colorado, when the pace relaxes into a stroll and shoppers feel they are a part of this healthy bounty.
The fact is, customers have always been the key ingredient in the farmers-market recipe for success. When purchases are made from the producer, local economies and agriculture thrive at an optimum level. Grocery shopping becomes a meaningful activity when there are real relationships with those who create the food we consume.
Farmers markets are hardly a new concept and were a regular way of doing business as far back as 5,000 years ago in Africa's fertile Nile Valley. In America, the resurgence of markets has been astounding, with 8,144 listings in the 2013 U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Farmers Market Directory — a sign we are growing tired of industrial food and those impersonal grocery-store chains.
It is no wonder this business model is successful. Not only are they enjoyable, but the markets also provide consumers direct contact to their local food producers. Roadside farm stands have become nearly extinct along with the dwindling numbers of neighborhood butchers and bakeshops. Regional flavors and personality have been left behind in exchange for masses of food with questionable value — except for corporate profit.
Some of today's top agriculture markets can be found thriving in places that are in stark contrast to any type of farm setting. In the hearts of cities, farmers have discovered a steady supply of customers hungry for fresh food. A mutual benefit to the cities themselves has been the sprouting of new life into what was often a downturned neighborhood.
In the 1970s, New York City's Union Square was full of crime until it began attracting new life with a farmers market. Today this fresh market stands as one of the world's best, with nearly 140 regional growers and other producers selling products. Celebrity chefs showcase cooking skills, giving free demonstrations, and elementary schools participate in farm-to-table education.
Farmers markets are steeped in history, and in other parts of the world they are often centuries old, still held in their same ancient plazas. Whether it is the Bourough Market in London or the Lancaster Market in Pennsylvania, they continue to be a valued connection among the community, consumer and producer.
Other cities have benefited from these markets, planting new life into areas of decline. For example, Seattle's Pike Place Market, with its famous fish-tossing seafood mongers, is a star example of urban revitalization. At the turn of the century, Seattle was a fast-growing, rowdy mix of gold miners, loggers, shipbuilders and bustling merchants. From 1890 to 1900, the city's population doubled to 80,000. Hurried farmers hauled horse-drawn-wagon loads of produce into town over muddy roads.
From the nearby islands, ferry services transferred boxes of goods to the hungry city. All products were sold to greedy wholesalers, with little of the profits going to the farmers and other producers. By 1906, the price of food had soared because of the iron grip held by the wholesalers. Consumers rioted about the price gouging, while growers were left without income. In the summer of 1907, city councilmen proposed that Seattle create a public marketplace where farmers were allowed to sell directly to consumers and eliminate the need for wholesalers and other middlemen.
On opening day, farmers were sold out in a matter of hours. Over the years, a historical arcade of booths continued to grow in size and became a multistory piece of architecture erected on the downtown hillside.
Later, over the years, when chain grocery stores and suburbs came into vogue, this seaside marketplace fell on hard times. In the 1970s, local residents made a successful outcry to the city, requesting the rehabilitation (not removal) of the historic site.
Today, Pike Place Market remains a top Seattle destination for locals and tourists alike. The surrounding businesses have flourished, including a well-known coffeehouse, the first Starbucks. For more on this market, see http://www.pikeplacemarket.org.
In June, Colorado farmers markets will begin offering armloads of local bouquets, the first of the season's produce and those irresistible, freshly baked aromas. While enjoying the connection to our local land and folks, remember that these marketplaces are rich in history and are a proven ingredient for local vitality.
Joni Keefe moved to the Roaring Fork Valley after a career in landscape design. She is passionate about local food and agriculture. For more information, her website is Farmsfinest.com, or follow her on Twitter. Connect at email@example.com.