Farmers' Markets

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FARMERS' MARKETS. Farmers' markets are common facilities or areas where several producers gather on a regular basis to sell various fresh meat, fruit, vegetables, and other food products directly to consumers. They circumvent the middleman and provide small-and medium-sized producers with an immediate, convenient, and economical sales outlet for their agricultural products. They are also established for the benefit of the urban consumer who values quality, variety, and freshness in food.

Farmers' markets vary greatly in terms of their physical shapes and configurations. The simplest form is the open-air market, where shelter is provided by the producers themselves or by structures already in place, such as bridges, arcades, and elevated highways. A more complex form is the market shed, which provides minimal protection from the elements yet allows easy access from all sides. The fully enclosed market house offers still greater shelter and facilitates year-round selling. Market districts, the most complex form, combine elements of the open-air market, the market shed, and the market house with other facilities, services, and related businesses.

Farmers' markets are an urban phenomenon worldwide and they assume characteristics determined by the social, political, and economic factors particular to their locales. The environment, natural features of the landscape, cultural norms, and the historic relationship between the countryside and the town also contribute to a wide range of market types. For example, the Tsukiji Market in Tokyo specializes in the wholesale and retail fish trade, with nearly 1,700 stalls covering a huge (54-acre/22-hectare) site. The market at Otovalo, Ecuador, one of many open-air markets in South America, functions as a principal trading point for Indian farmers selling local produce and handicrafts. And the daily market at Campo de'Fiori continues the long tradition of food marketing in one of the oldest public squares in Rome. Regardless of types or locations, farmers' markets around the world create a vibrant environment where consumers and producers are brought together for the benefit of the local community.

Although farmers' markets vary in terms of ownership and facilities, most operate by standard criteria in accordance with traditional trading ethics and standards. Vendors are subject to environmental, health, licensing, and other market ordinances and legislation. They must also adhere to the market's own rules and guidelines, which typically establish days and hours of operation, the payment of rents, and other business matters. A market manager is usually engaged to oversee the daily activities of the market and to ensure that rules and guidelines are met.

The most important criteria for farmers' markets are that goods be locally produced and that vendors sell their own products. These criteria change over time and differ from place to place. "Locally produced" may be defined strictly in terms of the radius from the market, for example, thirty miles, but the actual distance depends on a number of circumstances. Farmers' markets near coastal areas may encompass a large radius that includes the source of locally caught fish. For markets in major urban areas, farms are of necessity some distance away, so the radius may be larger than that for smaller communities. Available transportation from farm to market as well as consumers' own perception of "local" may also influence definitions.

The other important criterion, that goods be the direct product of the merchant's labor, is again subject to different interpretations. In general it holds that fresh meat and produce have been grown or finished on the producers' land. Cheese, honey, and processed meat products, such as sausage, are also produced on the vendor's land or at least within the defined radius of the market and with local ingredients. In general crafts and processed products using materials from outside the area of the farmers' market are excluded in favor of food products that have an entirely local origin. This restriction, however, is often lifted during winter months or when local products are not in season.

Farmers' markets belong to an ancient tradition of urban food retailing, in which the governing authority designated specific places for the exchange of life's necessities. Known as public markets, these places were intended to attract local and regional producers to the city to ensure citizens an adequate supply of healthful food at fair prices. They were critical to the survival of the town, because without them unbridled competition and unfair dealings in the sale of perishable food could jeopardize the public welfare. The local authority also maintained public markets to ensure a healthy population of workers, to prevent emigration, and to encourage agriculture near the city.

One of the most famous farmers' markets in nineteenth-century America was the city-owned High Street Market in Philadelphia. By midcentury this market consisted of a series of sheds in the middle of High Street extending from the foot of the Delaware River to Eighth Street and again from Fifteenth to Seventeenth streets, with breaks only at the intersections. Space in the market was divided by types of goods, including meat, fish, garden seeds, produce, roots, herbs, vegetables, meal, locally produced earthenware, and New Jersey produce. The market was demolished in 1859, when it was replaced by a series of large, off-street market houses owned by private companies.

The majority of farmers' markets in the United States were municipally owned and operated until the mid-nineteenth century, when the movement for privatization generated alternative food-marketing establishments, including private shops and market companies. As a result, farmers' markets may be owned and managed by a municipality, but more often they convene on public property and are sponsored by nongovernmental entities, which may be farmers' associations, chambers of commerce, cooperatives, or other community organizations.

A quasi-public corporation, the Pike Place Market Preservation and Development Authority, oversees Pike Place Market in Seattle, Washington, one of the most successful markets in the United States. Established in 1907, the market encompassed a nine-acre historic district by the year 2000, with more than 100 farmers, 150 craftspeople, nearly 300 commercial businesspeople, 50 performers, and various services for low-income residents. During the 1990s the historic district hosted approximately 9 million visitors per year, and annual gross sales were estimated at $9 million.

The number of farmers' markets has been growing steadily in recent years. Cities throughout the world are taking an interest in developing farmers' markets to add vitality to their public spaces, to redevelop their historic marketplaces, to revitalize neighborhoods, and to make fresh food available in areas underserved by supermarkets. In the United States, for example, the number of farmers' markets grew 63 percent in the last decade of the twentieth century, from 1,755 in 1994, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture began collecting data, to 2,863 in 2000. Other factors have contributed to their popularity. Most significantly, small farmers cannot afford to invest in the costly marketing systems required for mass food retailing and distribution. Direct access to the consumer therefore offers an alternative source of revenue and immediate cash flow.

Consumer demand for farmers' markets has also increased worldwide, primarily in response to the growing organic food movement and to public health disasters resulting from mass food marketing and production practices. Sophisticated consumers take a great interest in nutrition and wholesome eating habits, and they seek the sources of the foods they eat. As a result they view farmers' markets as healthy alternatives or supplements to supermarkets and other outlets of mass-marketed food. Farmers' markets devoted exclusively to the sale of organic food are abundant in France, one of the world's leading consumers of organic food. The demand for organic food markets, coupled with the larger international movement to resist the globalization of food marketing and production, will continue to foster farmers' markets as critical sources of fresh, healthful, and affordable food for the urban consumer.

See also Food Cooperatives ; Marketing of Food ; Marketing of Food: Alternative (Direct) Strategies ; Retailing of Food .


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Helen Tangires

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Farmers' Markets

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