The American Farmers Market
Gastronomica, Summer, 2002


photo of woman exchanging money over baskets of fruitBrattleboro, Vermont, is a town perched on the sometimes hostile border between genuine ruralness—actual farmers—and the new age, manifested in such tell-tale signs as multiple yoga centers and a well-worn vegetarian restaurant. My grandmother trans- planted there in the early '60s, making her a similar combination of old and new. She might look like an old-timer in her hunting jacket and boots, yet when the roads aren't too icy you'll find her rattling pick-up parked outside the co-op.

She tells a story of the local farmers market, a fair representation of the traditional institution's modern incarnation. By the time she discovered the market, it had matured into a weekly affair with a strong personality, a loyal following, and a stable of young growers purveying chioggia beets and willowy leeks. During one of her first trips there, the old-timers were discovering the market for themselves. A few were selling their products, but most were lurking around the edges of the grassy lot in suspenders and flannel pants, deciding whether they were witnessing a bastardization of something that rightfully belonged to them, or a concept they might just condone, even though it was not quite what it ought to be.

Then, from between the stalls selling dense bouquets and rosy apples, came a tie-dye-clad hippie, his gray hair spilling out from under a beret. Though his eyes were closed and he walked slowly, his presence was commanding. Both of his hands were stretched around a thick, pointed piece of quartz: he was demonstrating how to divine water by using a crystal. If the old-timers had been feeling alright about the market until then, their minds suddenly changed. A few stayed to gawk, but most made for their trucks, heads shaking.

By definition, the modern American farmers market is not much different from its ancestor: a place where farmers sell the food they've grown and consumers buy it. Today, though, markets exist for more than just commerce. That they ride the social fence with my grandmother—somewhere between pure, raw agriculture and something earnest, intentional—seems contrary to their nature.

Markets are places where food is exchanged for money, goods, or other food. Our nation's earliest interpretations were informal gatherings, simple in structure. Supply consisted of farmers' surplus or wild food scavenged by women and Native Americans; demand was simply the needs of soldiers and others who weren't full-time growers.

As with any lucrative arrangement, enterprising citizens recognized the value of these gatherings and sought to institutionalize them. In the late 1600s and early 1700s, the trading sites were designated as market squares, and a town hall was often erected on an adjacent plot. From the halls were issued basic regulations, designating times when selling might take place or ensuring that measurements conformed to standards.

Despite advances, the governing technology and transportation were still fairly crude. Because goods were brought mostly by wagon, vendors were exclusively local. The threat of rotting meat meant that only small game was sold during summer. Winter markets were better, and not only because beef was available. Gliding across ice on their sleighs, northern traders could carry more, and heavier, goods, such as grains and livestock. Winter also meant less fieldwork, leaving more time throughout the colonies for the often arduous journey to market and the social life awaiting there. Even though the gatherings had become planned events at fixed locations, the commerce continued to be defined by the supply side's ebb and flow.

 

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