Which came first, the city or the farmers market?
Like the proverbial chicken and egg, I’m not sure there is a right answer. You really can’t separate the two. The existence of one pretty much requires the other. Here’s what the history books say about it:
The ancient village of Uruk in Mesopotamia became what’s now considered the world’s oldest city around 3450 B.C. The first farmers markets are thought to have originated in Egypt over 5,000 years ago when farmers along the Nile brought their fresh produce to sell.
See what I mean?
From those earliest roots of civilization, food has helped define a place and its people. Climate and geography dictate which plants and animals will grow…and how those food sources are acquired and eaten help to shape the local culture.
We are what we eat.
By popular definition, a farmers market is a place where the food goods are produced locally and vendors sell their own products. So it makes perfect sense that a farmers market can be the perfect catalyst for creating an authentic sense of place.
For a while it looked like we’d forgotten all that. Vibrant cities and farmers markets gave way to superstores and urban food deserts…while fast food chains tried to make it all look pretty much alike.
I’m happy to say it looks like we’re coming back from that cultural brink. Today there are farmers markets all over the world again. The smallest ones might be no more than three or four vendors on a sidewalk. Tokyo, Japan has the world’s largest with over 1,700 stalls.
Here in Michigan, farmers markets are once again a highly visible and hugely popular part of the urban landscape. Each has its own unique atmosphere, vendors, produce, and products. In fact, I’d wager that a good foodie could guess which city they’re in just by wandering through its farmers market.
And we are not alone.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the number of operating farmers markets in the U.S. has grown from 1,755 in 1994 to 4,685 in 2008 and 5,274 in 2009. That’s a rise of 300 percent in a 15 year span. The USDA projects they will continue to grow at a healthy 10 percent rate per year.
The “why” isn’t surprising. Devotees will tell you there’s nothing more personal and social than belonging to a local food community. A farmers market can be a magnet and focal point for everything that’s unique about a city or village.
There is more to read in The Review about the rebirth of the local farmers market, the new breed of producers and consumers who have embraced it, and the role they all play in strengthening a community’s sense of place.
*From my column in The Review