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The Philadelphia farmers market, still housed in the same building it has occupied since 1896, proves that the market tradition never completely died. But for the most part, by the 1960s the dual pressures of suburbia and competition from agribusiness were squeezing small farms out of existence, and very few markets remained. On the other hand, consumers had begun to question corporate control of essentials, such as food. The publication of Silent Spring (1962), with its startling news about DDT, jolted shoppers into realizing how disconnected they were from the food supply. If they wanted spray-free apples, they would have to hunt them down; grocery stores simply didn't have them.
One way to address consumer concerns was to reinvent the concept of the farmers market. As pioneers such as Barry Benepe realized, buying directly from growers would not only help sustain small farms, it would offer something that efficient and low-priced modern food distribution couldn't: consumer control. When Benepe founded New York's Greenmarket in 1976, his goal was not just to provide food to urbanites, as markets had in the past, but to provide fresh, healthy food in great enough variety to offer consumers the power of choice. At the same time, by eliminating middlemen, farmers would get a better price for their crops. And in turn, hopes went, they would be inspired to keep their farms smaller, grow food more carefully, and nurture a more conscious agriculture. Congress put the sentiment in writing with the Farmer-To-Consumer Direct Marketing Act of 1976, an unprecedented bill that sought to condone and therefore reestablish what had come to be considered an unsophisticated, even unsanitary, institution. Explicit throughout the bill was the intention to benefit not just hungry consumers, but to “[provide] increased financial returns to farmers.”
It certainly accomplished the latter. In his 1980 book, Farmers Markets of America: A Renaissance, Robert Sommers wrote, “One economist estimated that eighty percent of the retail cost of supermarket produce goes to wholesalers, jobbers, packers, and transporters,” leaving only twenty percent in the grower's pocket. In contrast, John McPhee wrote in Giving Good Weight, his story of working in the Greenmarkets, about how the markets were a boon to previously struggling producers:
If they are something good for the urban milieu—tumbling horns of fresh plenty at the people's feet—they are an even better deal for the farmers, whose disappearance from the metropolitan borders may be slowed a bit by the many thousands of city people who flow through streets and vacant lots and crowd up six deep at the trucks to admire the peppers, fight over the corn, and gratefully fill our money aprons with fresh green city lettuce.
And for years the markets were just as McPhee described: a dynamic exchange of money for food of a quality that America had forgotten existed. Markets grew organically from their communities. They were urban and rural; tucked into parking lots and given their own grand halls; famous as hotbeds for liberal politicking and down-home country music.
Slowly, though, one type of market rose to the top, for it attracted more people than those motivated solely by goodwill and health. This is the type of market that Gourmet or Sunset magazines like to photograph, where fresh-faced suburban moms collect bright greens and perfect eggplants in wicker baskets; where a street musician or clown is always on call to entertain; where four ounces of organic herb chèvre fetch five green dollars. As towns across America built markets in hopes of revitalizing sagging downtowns, this type of market was deemed most desirable. And suddenly, so many markets had been created in this charming image, that within season, small-town Vermont and downtown San Francisco offered nearly identical produce: baby arugula, young fennel bulbs, heirloom tomatoes.
Yet it was more than their attention to gourmet foods that made these markets the ones to copy. The model capitalized on the experience of the marketplace. Consider the joy we take in visiting such places while touring Oaxaca, Nice, or Bombay. The noise, the colors, the dirt-stained farmers and eccentric customers all contribute to the appeal. But as travelers without kitchens, we can't take home a pile of pungent turmeric or buy more than an afternoon's worth of succulent dates. In a perverse modern metamorphosis, the food in these foreign markets is not a source of sustenance but an erotic treat—explicitly sensual, but rarely consumed.