Farmer’s markets: More than just a place to buy vegetables

By Janette Rosenbaum — A lecture delivered recently at the Crossroads of Ideas forum presented farmer’s markets as central to the well-being of a community.

Alfonso Morales, an expert in food systems and public marketplaces, began by describing the history of street markets, which encompass farmer’s markets as well as other types of commerce that go on in open spaces. Historically, he said, the concepts of law and public order came about as a means to protect trade and the people who engaged in it.

As civilizations developed, government regulation arose as a way to protect consumers from unscrupulous traders. In the private realm, people began to use purchased goods as a source of status and to differentiate themselves from their neighbors.

Today, markets give us more than a reason for laws and an opportunity to buy things. Farmer’s markets are a center of social life, said Morales, offering cultural entertainment by street performers and a place for community members to meet and interact. They provide a destination for active transport — that is, walking or biking, rather than driving a car.

They are also a leading indicator of sustainable agriculture in the region, and improve food access, especially for seniors and low-income residents. Finally, they help us feel connected to the place where we live, by providing access to local produce. In all of these ways, farmer’s markets contribute to our health.

Street markets also provide economic opportunities. They are a relatively low-barrier entry point for aspiring entrepreneurs. Morales described families who launched their business by selling a few products from a booth at a street market, and who now own store buildings. These families would not have been able to raise the capital to start out in a storefront. Having a less-expensive path to small-business ownership is especially important for low-income and minority families.

Farmer’s markets are a growing phenomenon, broadening the opportunity for more people to reap their benefits. The Twin Cities boast 24 farmer’s markets. Madison’s municipal website reports only 20, but the list includes the Dane County Farmer’s Market, which is the largest producer-only farmer’s market in the country. Research on farmer’s markets is ongoing and will help planners maximize the benefits that these public spaces offer to the community.

The lecture, entitled “Resurgent Street Markets: Roots and Branches in Society, Politics, Economics, and Health” was sponsored by the University of Wisconsin–Madison and the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery. A recording will be available at discovery.wisc.edu.