Farmers market

Colorful fall produce, like pumpkins, gourds and squash can be found at the Sierra Vista Farmers Market.

Have you ever wondered why you come to the Farmers’ Market every Thursday? I would like to talk about why you should be coming to the farmers’ market in a short series of articles over the next few weeks.

We have become slaves to the corporations that provide the food that we put on our tables. The first farmers markets were plentiful with fresh fruits, vegetables, and grains. Animals were brought to the market alive for the people to take home and butcher to have fresh meat on the table. Somewhere over the course of countless years, corporations have taken over the potential of seeds and wary be the small farmer that wants to plant seeds without permission.

Most Americans buy their groceries in huge depopulated megastores with automatic misters and self-service checkout lines. We view the world around us through modern devices such as televisions, computers, and cell phones. “Fresh” foods are scarce when compared to the rows and rows of processed foods that fill the stores shelves. Some of the food that populates the shelves is too often not even quite food.

The end of World War II and the baby boom that followed it brought on a rise of a different kind of processing. Refined sugars, additives, dyes, preservatives and a vocabulary of unpronounceable ingredients became the foundation of the American diet. Today, over 60% of what we eat consists of processed foods. We have even forgone meaningful communication for an alternate form that is not really communication.

It is interesting that even in this time of virtual reality, cloaked in screen-mediated communication, shopping in air-conditioned megastore isolation, somewhere groups of people gather, out in the weather, to experience local community with their neighbors, strangers and their local farmers. Farmers’ markets are where these neighbors can meet face to face, with the knowledge of confirmation and responsibility that this kind of contact implies.

As a people, we need this kind of contact to sate the hunger not calculated in the FDA’s recommended daily allowance tables. These gatherings feed us deeply with a need to explore community. The last few years have brought out the desire for a sense of authenticity and locality that is not found in the high-tech supermarket experience. We relish buying fresh potatoes and produce with the traces of dirt still on them from a farmer wearing the same dirt on his boots. This emotional sustenance is not found in the latest nutritional pyramid.

At a farmers’ market we get the opportunity to feel an individual experience generated through a cooperative experience that plays out on a human scale. This place is where different classes of races, neighborhoods, religions and backgrounds can meet and exchange not only food, but language, music, recipes, news, information and ideas.

Farmers’ markets bring the past traditions together with our current lifestyles. The farmers have one foot in the agricultural methods of the past along with the know-how of centuries past and the other foot in many of the best innovations of recent times. The experience for the customer is just as savvy because their interest in what they eat and where it comes from is keen. The relationship between farmer and customer is a one-on-one sale.

We have to keep in mind that the United States transformed from a rural country to a vastly more urban one during the twentieth century. In the early 1900s,about a third of the population lived on farms. By 2000, that number had dwindled down to only one percent working in agriculture, fishing, forestry and hunting combined.

As a result, the farmers market gave way to near oblivion around the 1960s, due to corporate farming and global food market experiments. In 1970, the tide turned as the number of people producing food for sale at farmers’ markets started to increase. Farmers’ markets grew to more than 3,700 farmers’ markets in 2004, growing by nearly 50 percent during the previous ten years. And some 19,000 growers sold their produce only at farmers’ markets.

We have come a long way since the first farmers’ market opened in 1634 in Boston, Mass. by order of then Governor John Winthrop. It began as an open-air market until 1662 when a building was added to the site. Hartford opened its market in 1641, and New York had two markets before 1686 and five more by 1731. In 1693, Philadelphia saw the opening of the farmers’ market on High Street later to be known as Market Street. As the population moved westward, New Orleans opened the French Market in 1779 and Cincinnati opened its first market in 1801.

As with all good things, innovation has a habit of changing the way we live. While markets boomed in the 1800s, economic and cultural changes were about to bring a demise in farmers’ markets. As cities grew the farms were pushed further from the town centers. Farmers began shipping their produce in by rail to stores in town. By 1850, Hartford and Philadelphia ceased their farmers’ markets. Some farmers sought to open their own storefronts while some farmers resorted to selling to these storefronts. By 1900, farmers’ markets in about half of the cities in America were shutdown.

Mass production and distribution made food more available; however, freshness and taste were trumped by availability, price and shipping hardiness. Cheaper was always considered better. As a consequence, more small farms failed. This has been the single biggest change in food over the last 50 years. The conversion of America’ small and medium-sized farms into massive industrial factories designed to raise, contain and slaughter animals as efficiently and inexpensively as possible.

By 1962, the food industry consolidated into six corporations which accounted for 46 percent of the total retail food and beverage sales in the U.S. Today, roughly 94% of all animals raised for human consumption spend their lives on massive factory farms

Into this food quagmire of the 1960 and 1970s, the nascent natural products industry had its beginnings. By 1985, the food business was making $290 billion dollars, but natural foods accounted for only $2.7 billion of that total. Fast forward to 2013 ,and the natural food business topped $109 billion with an annual growth in sales growing 10 to 12 percent annually as compared to only a 3.4 percent growth for conventional groceries.

Between 1994 to 2008 is when farmers’ markets hit their stride. During that period, the number of farmers’ markets expanded by over 300%. From just shy of 2,000 in 1994 to the currently FDA-registered farmers’ markets of 8,600.

Fear is always a determining factor in anything. Take for instance the first “Farm Aid” concert held in September 1985. The concert sounded the alarm that America’s burgeoning factory farms were forcing the loss of 32,000 family farms each year. Tacked on to that in 1989 when 60 Minutes aired a special, announcing that Alar, a growth-regulator sprayed on fruits and vegetables, was “the most potent cancer-causing agent in the food supply today.” The demand for organic produce exploded.

As the pendulum swings back toward real foods instead of lab-created processed foods, ancient is becoming the new “New.” Remember all the things that the FDA and others told you were bad for you? Research is now suggesting they’re actually good for you — eggs, potatoes and coconut are enjoying a homecoming. Even butter is back. A few years back in 2013, even the New York Times mentioned that “People today want minimally processed, simple food made from whole-food ingredients, …. Our food future looks a lot like our past.”

Today in most cities across America, farmers’ market and grocery stores share the landscape together. Some are small and others are large, in fact the largest farmers’ market in the world is located in Tokyo, Japan and boasts over 1,700 booths.

Next week we’ll dive into the benefits of buying at our local Farmers’ Market. See you then!

As always, many of the market vendors accept WIC Farmers Markets & Senior Farmers Markets Vouchers (expire on Nov. 15, 2021) in exchange for fresh fruits and vegetables. SNAP vouchers can also be used at some of the vendors booths. You can use your EBT card at the info booth for SNAP vouchers and Double UP tokens (unlimited amount right now).

We are looking forward to seeing you all at this coming week’s Market. For more information on all our vendors and the products they will be bringing, please see this week’s Farmers’ Market newsletter at www.sierravistafarmersmarkets.com. Also, check out our Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/sierravistafarmersmarket/.

Submitted by “Uncle” Ralph Wildermuth