Farmers' markets provide opportunities for farmers and craftsmen to sell their products—fruits, vegetables, herbs, cheeses, meats, baked goods, etc.—directly to consumers. They date back to ancient times, when public markets were the few places in existence where residents could find the items they needed for daily living. Cities encouraged public markets as a way to bring local and regional producers to the city to increase their business, as well as a way to help residents get healthy food that was priced fairly. Public markets also provided employment opportunities, encouraged farming near the city, and, as a result, helped prevent people from moving away.
One early American public market was the city-owned High Street Market in Philadelphia. The market started with just a few stalls in the early 1800s, and by the 1850s had grown to a series of sheds stretching across many streets, with breaks only at the intersections. Market space was organized and divided according to the types of products being sold, such as vegetables, herbs, roots, produce, meat, fish, and earthenware. High Street Market was torn down in 1859 to make way for the construction of large, market houses that were owned by private companies. This followed the movement away from municipally owned and operated farmers' markets of the previous decades and toward privatization of the business. Today most farmers' markets operate on public property, with sponsorship from such nongovernmental groups as farmers' associations, chambers of commerce, community organizations, or food cooperatives.
Farmers' markets are set up in various ways to fit in with their environment. Some use already existing structures, such as bridges and elevated highways, as cover. For others, where these types of structures are not available, stalls are built, and tarps and other materials are used for shelter. Many markets are open year-round, rain or shine, with limited days and hours of operation each week. They sell what is being grown that season.
Farmer's markets may be temporary setups (easy to assemble and break down), situated in open squares in cities, such as the Union Square Greenmarket in New York City. The Council on the Environment of New York City (known as GrowNYC today) started this market, and others like it, in 1976, after years of city residents complaining bitterly about the "brown lettuce" and "hard tomatoes" that were being sold in supermarkets. The first greenmarket in New York City consisted of 12 farmers in an empty lot, and has grown since to become a large network of greenmarkets throughout the five boroughs.
Pike Place Market in Seattle, Wash., is an example of an older, well-established public market situated in a permanent structure. The origins of the nine-acre Pike Place Market are symbolic of the spirit that still drives many farmers' markets today. The price of onions had increased tenfold between 1906 and 1907, and citizens were outraged and were not going to take it any longer. Middlemen had been gouging prices for years and people were tired of being ripped off. Seattle City Councilman Thomas Reveille came up with the idea of a public street market, where farmers could sell directly to consumers, therefore eliminating the middleman. Pike Place Market "opened" on August 17, 1907, with eight farmers selling produce from their wagons at the corner of Pike Street and First Avenue. Approximately 10,000 shoppers showed up, and by 11:00 A.M., the wagons were sold out of produce. The Pike Market building opened at the end of 1907. Today, the market features more than 200 year-round commercial businesses; 225 craftspeople; and more than 80 farmers who rent table space by the day.
Consumer demand for locally grown, fresh food continues to grow, and more farmers' markets are starting up every year. Between 1994 and 2019, the number of farmers' markets operating in the United States increased from 1,755 to more than 8,600.
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