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The twentieth century brought more of the same for market farmers: trucks offered them greater opportunities for distributing food, but tractors enabled them to produce more, and greater production brought prices down. Nascent advertising and marketing propelled prepared foods to new heights in consumer esteem, and chain grocery stores experienced extensive growth—between 1912 and 1915 “the A&P Company reputedly opened a new store every three days.” Even farm families were adopting the new American attitude toward food. According to a study done by The Ohio Agricultural Experiment Station in 1920, rural families in the state purchased more than half their fruit and up to a quarter of their vegetables from delivery services.
Farmers markets saw a brief burst of support during the Beautify America campaign of the 1910s, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) went so far as to establish an “Office of Markets” to modernize the institutions. But as investment shifted from retail to wholesale, the markets lost funding quickly, and many of the smaller ones did not withstand the Depression. Shortages during World War II caused other markets to close, and in the West, where growers were predominantly Asian American, Japanese internment dealt them a nearly final blow.
Strangely, a 1946 USDA report lists 724 “farmers’ produce markets”—more than ever. What’s telling, though, is the authors’ definition of the markets. Two of the four categories involve middlemen (farmer to wholesaler and wholesaler to consumer), evidence that somewhere along the line the grower himself had become a non-essential ingredient. In reality, for a population of 141 million there were only 291 farmer-to-consumer markets. Fewer than ten percent of all farmers growing vegetables for sale participated personally in the markets (wholesale or not), or fewer than two percent of the six million farmers nationwide.
What did remain of farmers markets after World War II fell into the deadly path of the American automobile. The Federal-Aid Highway Acts of 1938 and 1944 set in motion the transcontinental highways, the eventual backbone of modern American food distribution. (Today, thanks to that system, beets and beef travel an average of 1,500 miles in their journey to the table.) With the development of the automobile and the construction of massive webs of new roads, food could be grown wherever farming was most economical and then trucked to where it was needed. Further, people who once filled the cities could now spread out into the suburbs. Farmers markets, born out of the needs of concentrated populations, had inspired growth and eventually become integral to the urban way of life. But now that the people themselves were dispersing, the old system simply didn’t work any more.