Trains shake the city’s root
systems; the brick trunks of buildings
form a steadfast grove.
Even in shade a seedling arches toward the light
to sprout. Come with me
to the market, green as mint sprig,
clear as water. Some ember you thought extinguished
roars quietly to life among the baskets of hyacinth rich with dew.
Each month we delve into a new story inspired by our scent of the month. This month, the clean, verdant scent of Green Market transports us to the unassuming farmers’ market, where we learn there’s more than meets the eye.
When the conquistadors arrived in the Aztec empire, the market of Tlatelolco dazzled them. Bernal Díaz de Castillo, a Spanish soldier, wrote of being “astonished at the number of people and the quantity of merchandise.” He recorded stalls piled with “beans and sage and other vegetables and herbs” and “women who sold cooked food, dough, and tripe.” ”We had never seen such a thing before,” he marvelled.
In 1521, the awe-inspiring market would transform into a place of bloodshed, the field on which the Aztecs and conquistadors waged their final battle before the empire was toppled.1
Since the first one appeared thousands of years ago, what we now know as “farmers’ markets” have played host to many such scenes of world-historical import. However, they’ve also served as backdrops for countless smaller, more human — and humane — interactions. Farmers teach curious shoppers about exotic produce. Friends and neighbors stop to chat among the stalls.
A market scene, Credit: Wikipedia
“More than a place to buy and sell food, public markets were civic spaces, the common ground ‘where citizens and governments defined the shared values of the community,’” writes McGill University Professor Avi Friedman, in turn paraphrasing historian Helen Tangires.
Indeed, some anthropologists believe markets played a key role in preserving the cultures and traditions of the native people of South America following the continent’s conquest and colonization by providing a lasting cultural centerpiece for the indigenous community.2
“Today, farmers’ markets now thrive as community destinations, sources of fresh, local food, and green spaces bringing a little nature back into our urbanized lives.”
While farmers’ markets almost disappeared from American life entirely during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they’ve surged back to prominence in recent times. Today, farmers’ markets now thrive as community destinations, sources of fresh, local food, and green spaces bringing a little nature back into our urbanized lives.
A Tale of Two Revolutions
It’s impossible to pinpoint the very first farmers’ market in history, and it’s tough to say exactly how or why markets began. Historians and anthropologists do tend to agree, however, that markets arose as a result of the Neolithic Revolution some 12,000 years ago, when the development of agriculture allowed hunter-gatherer tribes to settle down in stable, geographically fixed communities.3 Prior to this moment, people only gathered enough food for their own sustenance. Farming allowed people to grow surpluses, more food than they needed, which they could trade to others. This trade was eventually formalized as markets.
Markets may have also given birth to the written word. Scribes in some early markets would record transactions on clay tablets using simple counting marks and pictograms. Over time, these images and tallies became a syllabic script akin to the written systems we use today.4
Map showing the origins and spreading of agriculture during the Neolithic Revolution, Credit: Wikipedia
For centuries, markets flourished around the world. There was a booming market at Cahokia, a pre-Columbian Native American city located near modern-day St. Louis between 1000 and 1150. In 1634, Robinson and Hartenfeld report, Governor John Winthrop established the first European-style American market in Boston.5 Eventually, nearly every city and municipality of some size had its own market.
Things began to change in the 18th century with the arrival of another revolution: the Industrial Revolution. With new methods of transportation, manufacturing, and packaging, the ability to get fresh food to customers was expanding beyond the farmers' market. At the same time, rapid urbanization was pushing more people into the cities and further away from local farms. 6
Farmers’ markets were gradually replaced by wholesale markets like Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market, massive indoor spaces more well-maintained than their outdoor predecessors. Vendors would purchase goods from these wholesale markets and sell them to consumers, introducing middlemen into the equation. Those middlemen would eventually transform into the supermarkets we know today, and the farmers’ markets of yore would go virtually extinct in the 19th century.7
John Brucato, in suit, at his eponymous market;, Credit: Found SF
America's changing food culture, Credit: si.edu
That could have been it for the farmers’ market — but then World War II happened. Far from the farms, people living in cities and suburbs faced food shortages. The farmers were still growing crops, but short-staffed processing plants couldn’t buy and distribute those crops to consumers. In August 1943, a San Franciscan named John Brucato decided to revive an older form of commerce: the farmers’ market. While supermarket owners feared for their businesses and fought Brucato’s decision on legal grounds, farmers and shoppers fell in love. What was supposed to be a temporary solution to wartime problems became a fixture, and Brucato’s market still stands in San Francisco today.8
Left: World War I U.S. rationing poster; right: World War II U.S. rationing poster. Source: The Smithsonian Mag
In 1976, farmers’ markets got another boost, thanks to Americans’ increasing concerns about healthy diets and increased political activity aimed at preserving the existence of small farms threatened by big agribusiness. In that year, Congress passed the Farmer-to-Consumer Direct Marketing Act, which allowed USDA agents to work with localities to establish more farmers’ markets. As a result, the number of farmers’ markets in the U.S. rose by 500 percent.9
A Perennial Pastime
Farmers’ markets have stayed relatively popular since the 1970s. One reason why: They’re helping to address crises of food insecurity caused by food deserts. 10
People living in food deserts often have access only to heavily processed foods, but bringing farmers’ markets to these areas can change that. Per a report from the Project for Public Spaces and Columbia University, “farmers’ markets offer a powerful alternative for effectively reaching low-income communities. The relatively low startup costs ... allow fresh food options to enter communities where healthy, affordable food choices may not previously have existed.”
In fact, Americans of all socioeconomic classes increasingly turn to farmers’ markets in pursuit of better food choices. In one survey, 63 percent of farmers’ market shoppers said fresh food was their primary reason for visiting markets. Farmers’ markets also offer an eco-friendly alternative to supermarkets. Local farmers don’t need to transport their goods very far to sell at farmers’ markets, reducing emissions. They can also use less pesticide and fewer preservatives, as shelf-stability is not an issue.11
“Everyone needs access to clean, quiet, and safe natural refuges in a city. Short exposures to nature can make us less aggressive, more creative, more civic minded, and healthier overall.”
Farmers’ markets also help urbanites feed a certain urge to return to nature. The crowded concrete streets of the city can be thrilling, but they’re not always good for our health. Isolation from natural spaces can stunt our immune systems and raise our blood pressure. That’s why the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries promotes the practice of “shinrin-yoku,” or “forest bathing”: periodic trips into the natural world.12
As Florence Williams writes in The Nature Fix, “Everyone needs access to clean, quiet, and safe natural refuges in a city. Short exposures to nature can make us less aggressive, more creative, more civic minded, and healthier overall.” With their profusions of fresh plant life, often arranged in lush local parks, farmers’ markets can be the green oases city-dwellers lack in their lives
Diogenes searching for an honest man in the marketplace, Credit: Wikipedia
Finally — and perhaps most importantly of all — farmers’ markets provide venues for public social interactions in our atomized and alienated age. Much has been written about the loneliness epidemics afflicting millennials and baby boomers.13 We’re overworked. We rarely have time to see our friends or get to know our neighbors. Formerly public spaces are being privatized before our very eyes — but a Saturday morning trip to the farmers’ market could make all the difference.
Legend has it the Greek trickster-philosopher Diogenes once waltzed into a marketplace at noon, carrying a lit lantern and announcing he was searching “for an honest man.” Even with a lantern in broad daylight, the founder of philosophical Cynicism was certain he wouldn’t be able to find one.14 As a public space brimming with life and fragrant with crisp herbs, aquatic florals, and the grassy green scent of fresh vegetables, the marketplace may actually have been Diogenes’ best bet — and today it may be yours. The USDA maintains a national database of farmers’ markets in the U.S. where you can start your search.