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Farmers’ Markets Adapt to Survive In the ‘New Public Square’

A new book explores how grower-to-consumer retail works. Today these small, local institutions remain resilient.

A sign about keeping the farmers market safe is posted on a vendor's tent during the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market on April 21, 2020 in San Francisco, Calif. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Exploring the Architecture of Place in America’s Public and Farmers Markets, Kathryn Clarke Albright, University of Cincinnati Press, 180 pages.

It seems beside the point to litigate conflicts of chain-versus-independent retailers amidst a pandemic. Still, it’s likely that your retail options have become more superstore-oriented during the coronavirus outbreak. Smaller food-oriented retailers do fall within the “essential” umbrella, but the supermarket reigns more supreme than ever, and questions about the long-term viability of chain grocers are few compared to the risks this poses to independent retailers. 

It can sorely be hoped that shutdowns don’t imperil the long-term health of one of the most intensely local of our retail institutions, farmers’ markets. Most states permitted them to continue functioning under lockdown orders. (Virginia was one exception but has since permitted them.) But many markets shut down anyway or canceled or delayed starts out of safety concerns. A variety of approaches are being taken to reopening involving greater distances, pre-order and pick up options, and other tweaks resembling procedures you’ve seen at any other retailers.

Everyone loves a farmers’ market, though we haven’t had a book about the planning until this one, a fascinating survey of one of the most hopeful corners of American public life. Organic in every possible sense, they are one trend bottom-up trend pushing against the placeless advance of megastores and online retailing, and architecture professor Kathryn Albright contributes a very encouraging look at the forms they take (and we hope will continue to take once coronavirus has passed). 

You may well patronize a farmers’ market and the beauty of the type is that it is so highly flexible: Albright divides her work into a look at heritage buildings (historic indoor market halls), open-air pavilions, pop-up canopy markets, and mobile markets. These places often aren’t all farmers-only; there’s sometimes a distinction between public markets, which feature other kinds of shops, and farmers’ markets, which offer only direct sales from producers, but she reasonably collapses. (Most farmers’ markets currently reopening during the pandemic are permitting only food sales and not other types of vendors, incidentally).

No matter where they’re located, whether in a large urban structure or among tents in small towns, such markets are always human-scaled—thanks to the modest size of the average vendor’s operation, with the size of the average stall varying from “seven to twenty feet in width and five to twenty-five feet in depth.”

You’ll know that the character of each stall will vary more radically than almost any other experience in conventional retail: “The predictability and standardization of the supermarket starkly contrasts with the excitement and uniqueness afforded by the space and place of Farmers Markets. Shopping in a supermarket offers monotony and detachment compared to the direct, idiosyncratic, and personal contact at Farmers Markets.”

West Lafayette, Ind. (Wikimedia Commons)

She points out that supermarket wares travel on average 1500 miles to their point of sale; no farmer on earth is traveling that far to a local market and most are likely traveling less than a tenth that distance. In place of the same old aisles, you have real farmers or other likable folks vendors as “Weird Dude’s Plant Zoo—Awesome Perennials” and other sellers offering winning character and quality. 

You can’t just sit down and pencil in a slot for one Weird Dude and fifty other typecast vendors in your market melange; these processes are extremely granular. It’s encouraging to read many stories of markets growing from very humble beginnings into local institutions, a process that invariably encompasses all sorts of inimitable local variety. Most markets profiled here began quite small. Municipal parking lots, often empty on weekends, have been a frequent launchpad. Markets are one of very few things that the perpetual dead soil of parking lots can grow. They’ve frequently relocated to built structures elsewhere and sometimes have even replaced parking lots themselves. 

It’s slow-fuse dynamite as placemaking: market structures are then flexible; the failure of any one vendor isn’t going to sink a project and sellers can easily be replaced. Vendor turnover at some of the most sought-after establishments is sometimes small, “at Lancaster, Pennsylvania’s Central Market vendors have included their seniority-status stalls in their wills for more than two centuries so that their beneficiaries can continue to sell at this treasured public market.”

The North Union Farmers Market at Shaker Square in Cleveland began with six vendors in 1995 and now has 80. In Durham, N.C., its farmers’ market grew an offshoot of the local food co-op in the parking lot of the Durham Bulls stadium to vault through a series of parking lots into a covered pavilion nearby. Volunteer labor built a pavilion in Ithaca.

Findlay Market, Cincinnati (Travis Estell/Flickr)

There’s no doubt that markets have radiated benefits to nearby permanent retailers: they’ve helped to bolster healthy downtowns or to revive flagging ones. Findlay Market in Cincinnati has proved a boon to the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood (a Findlay Market Corporation has purchased properties nearby spreading its bounty). A similar dynamic has been at work in the River Market District in Little Rock.

Many historic market houses have been lost. Findlay is the last of nine in Cincinnati: those buildings that survive were often turned to some other use. Those that have survived are tremendous local assets, both destinations for locals and for tourists. Many are architecturally distinguished, from Eastern Market in Washington, D.C. to Cleveland’s West Side Market. Even less attractive rebuilds such as Lexington Market in Baltimore still harbor plenty of life. Permanent structures often anchor expansions on market days as well; nearby streets might close on Saturdays to be filled with canopy vendors.

One multimodal and economical solution is the construction of open-air pavilions, the form of the traditional market shed. These are highly versatile structures: The Harris Pavilion in Manassas, Va. hosts a farmers’ market from April to October and an ice rink in winter months with concerts and other events in between. The sites frequently host a wide range of civic life, often they’re the most meaningful venue of the sort in a community. Albright aptly quotes Michael Pollan’s observation that  “Farmers Markets are the new public square in America.” Where you find one you’ll also find music, seasonal events, politicking, pamphleteering, and  plenty of neighborly chatter. 

Even more evanescent markets without permanent structures can contain a ton of wares, and serve as significant civic anchors. The Saturday Market in Alexandria, Va. boasts a distinguished lineage, having sold products from George Washington’s farm. Some communities are entirely happy with the temporary nature of these setups: “Throughout my research on pop-up canopy markets, it surprised me to discover that many of these large markets, including Alexandria’s, resist efforts to build a permanent structure.”

Eastern Market, Washington, D.C. (Wikimedia Commons)

Albright compares these to nomadic structures, rightly. It’s clear that many markets don’t need any buildings to achieve longevity, and successfully rise and disappear once a week. The market square is of course always a nice place, but a series of stalls once a week on even the most barren parking lot is much better than nothing. She does have some routine placemaking advice for structure-less market sites. Cobblestone or brick pavers help to provide a better atmosphere without standing in the way of parking needs. Some sort of trees and greenspace are invaluable as are benches or some space to sit; if it’s possible for people to linger near a market without standing some always will. Obviously a location that’s accessible by a walk is a great help; location near transit stops is always a good idea. These minor steps can help even the most transient tent city work. 

There are other interesting details within. Many markets have become direct suppliers to local restaurants, such as Green City Market in Chicago, where restaurants will pick up pre-ordered items. There are questions of retailer balance in some markets; you’ve likely seen some markets that became all-trinket or tourist-oriented. These might call for some general guidelines. Alexandria limits its handicraft, jewelry, and art vendors but not produce and food. Some markets only permit producer stalls. These will vary by location—as they should. Some food-only markets can also become monotonous; some Brooklyn markets seem to host only artisanal pickle vendors. 

The charm is that for the most part, there is no formula for markets. Albright sums up what makes them tick:

Every Farmers Market is unique in its own way. This is what I tell people when they ask me what the key is to starting a new market in their own communities. There is, in fact, no single key because every community has its own distinctive character, and for this reason I am convinced that Farmers Markets are most successful when they grow organically out of the efforts and initiative of the citizens of the community.

Happily in recent decades, many have.

Anthony Paletta has contributed to The Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, The Guardian, and numerous other publications. He lives in Brooklyn.

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