Friday, June 10, 2011

Farmers Markets – Part II

 Farmers Markets are not a recent development connected to the ‘organic foods’ and ‘buy local’ movements seen in recent decades. They have been around for a lot longer time than one might think. The first Farmers Markets began over 5,000 years ago along the fertile land of the Nile River in Egypt, where farmers brought their produce to be sold.

Colonists in the New World also gathered to buy, sell, and trade goods as the Egyptians did. Their weekly gathering allowed colonial families to live more comfortably, since they were far from supplies that arrived only after a long ocean voyage. These earlier markets were not staged under tents and awnings like today. Instead, many of them set up under the protection of large trees that allowed the dappled sunlight to dance across their goods and produce.

The Colonial Markets included more than food, since there were settlers who made a living by crafting shoes, hats, clothes, and tools. However, the protocol to purchase these items was much different than going to the mall today. Instead of simply finding an outfit, and wearing it to work the next day, the colonial buyer went to the Colonial Farmers Market, placed an order for the clothing, and then waited until it was made, usually picking it up from the seller several weeks later.

Participants in the early Farmers Markets often traded for items instead of exchanging money and goods. For example, if a toolmaker did not have enough in his garden to feed his family one year, he could trade a tool he had made with a farmer who needed the tool and had himself raised a productive garden.

Towns within the colony of New Netherland in the mid 1600s had a specific day each week set aside as Market Day. This made it easy for buyers and sellers to prepare for exchanges that would take place on the given Market Day. Farmers Markets were more than an avenue to purchase and sell supplies. These gatherings were a time to visit with friends and neighbors, get caught up with the goings-on of the previous week, a time for the settlers to refresh their souls, and renew their friendships. At the end of the day, after close of a Market Day, most of those who attended went home a bit happier, glad to be an important part of their community.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Farmers Markets - Part 1

            The first Saturday in May is a day I look forward to each year because that is when the Farmers Markets open up for the season. I enjoy the Farmers Market for several reasons. First, it lets me know that summer is coming. After a cold and rainy winter, it is inspiring to see healthy plants lined up in black pots; knowing that only a few months previously, they were seeds. Gazing at bunches of fresh picked lettuce and parsley makes me question why I have not taken the time or effort to cultivate my own bunches of fresh produce. I am often reminded of the people who lived before supermarkets. At the end of a long winter with only small apples and wrinkly potatoes from the root cellar left, I am certain that the sight of leafed out lettuce was greatly appreciated.
            Another thing I enjoy about going to the Farmers Market is the instant camaraderie felt there. You can walk up to any booth, initiate a conversation and soon it seems like you are visiting with a life-long friend. I went to two Farmers Markets the first day of the season both in smaller towns with several booths each. At the first Market the merchants were cheery and had tables filled with goods however, it was not a typical spring morning. Instead, it was pouring down rain, causing the fire in the middle of the Market to smolder. The cold, wet weather did not hinder the man selling peppers, and tomato plants though. As my husband and I asked him about his plants, he knew each variety extremely well – how large each one would eventually grow and how soon they would produce fruit. As we chose the mixture of plants we wanted, the man at the booth carefully picked out plants that were healthy and straight with no wilted leaves. He gently loaded our plants into a box top as the rain poured on their leaves. As we walked away with our carefully selected plants my husband made the comment that the plants we were holding were the man at the Markets’ children, as he knew each one very well and had spent the past few months carefully tending them and watching them grow.
            The second Farmers Market I went to was small as well and by then the rain had stopped but had been replaced by a fierce wind that whipped around the edges of the coverings the merchants stood under. Here I visited with the sellers; first with an older, quiet gentleman who sold me a rosemary plant. He described how his wife used the herb in cooking and how to keep my plant protected during the extremely rainy weather we had been having. Another lady was passionate about tomatoes. I could have asked her about varieties of tomatoes for hours and she would have known every detail.
            It seems that farmers in the New World who shared plants between their friends and neighbors would have also known their plants well. They would want to be familiar with how well each variety could best be preserved through the winter. They would also want to be acquainted with when the plant produced so as to have a continual supply of food during the warmer months of the year. Herbs would also be important plants to acquire since their colonial homes did not have shelves filled with little plastic jars with red lids containing numerous spices to flavor food. This time of the year their food was fresh and favorable and a joy to eat.