What Makes a 'Farmers' Market?'

What constitutes a farmers' market, rather than an outdoor or public market?

3 minute read

July 5, 2014, 5:00 AM PDT

By Lisa Feldstein


Farmers' markets serve many purposes. Eponymously, and most simply, they are venues at which farmers can sell their products to consumers. They also serve as community gathering places, offering a festive environment in which to meet friends, taste new foods, and perhaps get lunch while shopping for the week's produce.

A few weeks ago we took out of town friends to the Saturday market at the San Francisco Ferry Building. We never actually made it to the shops inside the Ferry Building, loading up on stone fruit, tayberries, lamb, rice, fish, eggs, asparagus, and a huge assortment of greens from the outdoor farm stands. We also purchased farm-made almond paste, honey, and jam—the only processed foods we procured that day. We lugged our bounty home and prepared a locally grown feast. Our friends, having just come through one of the worst winters in Chicago's memory, were overjoyed by the late spring abundance that Northern Californians take for granted.

Two weeks later, walking through the Saturday market in Burlington, Vermont, I was struck by how different the meaning of "farmers' market" is here compared to San Francisco. Of course it is earlier in the Vermont growing season; even though it is the summer solstice, the hearty chard and delicate garlic scapes on display confirm early season harvests. The social importance of this space, occupying a park and a blocked-off city street, is evident; people are glad to see each other, savoring the sun and the newly warm weather. Children getting their faces painted add to the carnival atmosphere.

Searching for additional indicators of Vermont spring agriculture, I am struck by the scarcity of unprocessed products. A small handful of stands sell fresh produce: winter greens, garlic scapes, and strawberries bear witness to the transition from winter to spring agriculture. Several vendors offer fresh meat. One stall displays beautiful cut flowers. Jams, pickles, and other preserved foods are for sale, as well as a delicacy unavailable on the west coast: fresh maple syrup. Yet the majority of the stalls proffer baked goods, cheese, charcuterie, prepared foods to eat there, or non-edible products like beeswax candles, essential oils, clothes, pottery, and handmade wooden rolling pins. Multiple vendors offer maple-sweetened lemonade and iced tea, each with an improbably long line. Those shoppers who have eschewed lemonade are holding cups of coffee.

Most remarkable to me are the several booths selling locally brewed, distilled, and vinted beers, liquor, and wines. Astonishingly, samples are available to shoppers over the age of 21. I watch the producers pour tiny cups of their merchandise for shoppers who look appropriately serious and discerning as they taste the proffered elixirs. This isn’t permitted where I live, despite our region’s celebrated wine industry and fixation on "mixology."

I stroll away, reflecting. Like the old light bulb jokes, I wonder: How many farmers does it take to create a Farmers' Market? What is a Farmers' Market?


Lisa Feldstein

Lisa Feldstein is a Doctoral Candidate at the Department of City and Regional Planning at UC Berkeley. She is a 2012 Robert & Patricia Switzer Foundation Fellow, a 2012 Fellow at the Institute for the Study of Societal Issues, the 2010 recipient of The Robert A. Catlin/David W. Long Memorial Scholarship, and the 2009 recipient of the Friesen Fellowship for Leadership in Undergraduate Education. Lisa is formerly the Senior Policy Director with the Public Health Law Program, in which capacity she directed the organization's Land Use and Health Program.

Aerial view of Oceanwide Plaza skyscrapers covered with graffiti tags.

LA’s Abandoned Towers Loom as a “$1.2 Billion Ruin of Global Capital”

Oceanwide Plaza, shuttered mid-construction after its developer filed for bankruptcy, has stood vacant on prime Los Angeles real estate since 2019.

May 21, 2024 - The Architect's Newspaper

Entrance to a drive-through car wash at night with green 'Enter' sign.

Ohio Towns Move to Ban New Car Washes

City officials in northeast Ohio are putting limits on how many car wash facilities can open in their towns.

May 16, 2024 - News 5 Cleveland

Acela train at Wilmington station in Wilmington, Delaware.

The Passenger Rail Revival Is Here

For the first time in decades, multiple rail projects are moving forward that could have a transformative impact on train travel in the United States.

May 21, 2024 - Route Fifty

California Governor Gavin Newsom announcing funding for tiny home shelter project in front of quick-build tiny home shelter unit.

California’s Tiny Home Pledge Still on Paper, One Year Later

A promise to fund 1,200 tiny homes for unhoused residents in four cities as a way to rapidly and cost-effectively provide shelter has yet to yield tangible results, but projects are moving ahead in some cities.

7 hours ago - CALmatters

Residential neighborhood in Colorado with fall foliage and snowy mountains in background.

Colorado Ends Non-Family Occupancy Limits

Local jurisdictions will no longer be able to limit how many unrelated adults can live in a household, a move that supporters say will help lower housing costs and help older adults supplement their incomes and stay in their homes.

May 24 - Strong Towns

A white crosswalk painted by Crosswalk Collective LA in Los Angeles, California.

Guerilla Urbanism Spurs Action From Cities

Rather than take a hostile approach to DIY urbanism, some cities are using guerilla efforts as an opportunity to understand critical infrastructure gaps.

May 24 - Smart Cities Dive

News from HUD User

HUD's Office of Policy Development and Research

Call for Speakers

Mpact Transit + Community

New Updates on PD&R Edge

HUD's Office of Policy Development and Research

Write for Planetizen

Urban Design for Planners 1: Software Tools

This six-course series explores essential urban design concepts using open source software and equips planners with the tools they need to participate fully in the urban design process.

Planning for Universal Design

Learn the tools for implementing Universal Design in planning regulations.