Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Counting Farmers Markets

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Counting Farmers Markets

Article excerpt

In 1943, pear growers in Mann County, California, defied authorities and drove loaded trucks to open spaces in central San Francisco, where thousands of customers flocked to buy the freshest of fruit at prices up to 65 percent below retail. The organizer of these farmers markets, (1) San Francisco Water Authority officer and farmer John Brucato, saw in them a way to handle produce gluts resulting from World War II labor and transport shortages while smashing the monopoly of regional produce brokers. Brucato started six Bay Area farmers markets in the 1940S, a time when farmers markets were expanding, and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) researchers thought that rapid urbanization promised a rosy future for this venerable institution (Brucato 1948).

USDA was wrong. Post-World War II construction of Western irrigation infrastructure and the interstate highway system changed the produce industry beyond recognition and destroyed the market for local, seasonal produce. By 1970 only about 340 farmers markets remained, many populated by resellers, not farmers, and many on the verge of collapse.

It was in this setting, some thirty years ago, that the geographer Jane Pyle published an article in the Geographical Review entitled "Farmers' Markets in the United States: Functional Anachronisms?" (1971), which examined the history and situation of farmers markets in the United States at the end of the 1960s. Pyle defined farmers markets as periodic produce markets where some or all of the vendors are farmers. Drawing on earlier studies of markets and fairs, Pyle differentiated farmers markets from other kinds of public markets, estimated the number of farmers markets in the United States in 1880, 1918, and 1946, and traced the history of selected marketplaces through 1969. She presented a quaint picture of farmers markets that, even though they no longer played an important role in provisioning, persisted because of the protections and subsidies provided by public agencies. She contended that markets intended to favor consumers decline and that those managed so as to protect farmers and small businesses p ersist. Citing the social usefulness of farmers markets and the faithfulness of their customers, Pyle concluded on a hopeful note, saying that perhaps the future might hold "still another upswing in the fortune of the farmers' market." Such feeble optimism and the very title of the piece suggest that Pyle had no inkling of the political and social forces that would shortly increase the number of retail farmers markets manyfold, demonstrate their utility, and call into question their designation as anachronisms, functional or otherwise.

Pyle was hardly alone in predicting the disappearance of farmers markets. Contemporary economists and geographers were busy detailing the profound changes in the patterns of agricultural production and marketing being brought about by rapid technological and infrastructural improvements and the increasing urbanization of the U.S. population. The dominant vision was of a growing wholesale network and inevitable relocation of farming to sites with comparative production advantage. Although the locus of production of agricultural commodities has generally followed the models of Johann-Heinrich von Thunen, contrary to the expectations of midcentury writers, local production and marketing of agricultural products, have grown in importance, both to urban consumers and to periurban producers (Figure 1).

The decade of growth of farmers markets that began almost immediately after publication of Pyle's article was the result of economic and political activity in support of both farmers and consumers in an era of economic and political turmoil. The passage by the U.S. Congress of Public Law 94-463, the Farmer-to-Consumer Direct Marketing Act of 1976, with its various extensions and supplements, anointed direct marketing as a legitimate activity of Cooperative Extension Services within USDA, freeing county agents to work with farmers and local activists to organize markets. …

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