by Art Lander Jr. of Holy Branch Farm
When you visit the St. Matthews Farmers Market you take part in what humans have been doing for thousands of years around the world — gathering at a pre-determined place, on a pre-determined day and time, to buy and sell the provisions of daily life.
Open-air, public markets have existed for as long as humans have engaged in trade.
Through history open-air markets have typically been held in a city’s market district, green space in the city’s center, church yard or open field at the edge of town.
Farmers from the surrounding countryside would bring their goods to town to sell on a daily or weekly basis, during festivals or other special holiday events. Artisans, living and working near market sites, produced metal and leather goods, jewelry, clothing and woodenware for both necessity and luxury.
Even in ancient times, vendors paid a fee to sell on market days.
Today, consumers looking for high-quality, locally-produced fruits and vegetables, beef, lamb, pork, breads, cheese, prepared foods, wine, craft beer, cut flowers and one-of-a-kind arts and crafts are drawn to the modern version of the age-old open-air market — the farmers market. Customers have the convenience of finding just what they want in one place.
When you buy local there’s a person-to-person connection and a sense of community. You can put a face on your food, and can ask questions about how it was grown or raised. Talk with the artisan and get details of how that one-of-a-kind item was made so when you give it as a holiday, birthday, or wedding gift, there’s a story that goes along with the future heirloom.
According to the Kentucky Department of Agriculture (KDA), there are 160 farmers markets across the Commonwealth, in 112 counties, with about 2,700 vendors.
“We estimate $13 million annually in sales at Kentucky’s farmers markets,” said Sharon Spencer, of KDA’s Office of Direct Farm Marketing. “We’ve had farmers markets in Kentucky for at least 30 years. Demand is continuing to grow for local food and farm-based products.”
In many countries shopping at a local open-air market is a standard feature of daily life. Here’s some background on the history of open-air markets and market houses from around the world:
Open-air markets were known to have existed in the Middle East almost 2,000 years before the birth of Christ, in ancient Babylonia, Assyria, and Egypt.
In ancient Rome, markets were held on or near the Forum, an open space in the city’s center.
Pompeii, a Roman city of 12,000, near modern-day Naples, Italy, devastated by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD, had multiple markets.
Archaeological evidence suggests that the markets encircled the Forum, but the livestock market was situated on the city’s perimeter. Historians believe there was a produce market, cereal market, and meat and fish market. A calendar of market days, written on the side of a building is clear evidence of the market’s importance to community life and trade.
In Medieval Europe, markets developed close to monasteries, castles or royal residences.
Aristocratic households created considerable demand for goods and services, and attracting sellers stimulated the growth of towns.
In England alone, it’s believed that some 2,000 markets were established between 1200 and 1349. Beginning in the 12th century informal markets gave way to a system of formal, chartered markets where the regulation of market place practices gave consumers confidence in the quality of market goods and the fairness of prices.
Monarchs awarded a charter to local Lords to create markets and fairs for a town or village.The charter protected the town’s trading privileges in return for an annual fee. Once a chartered market was granted for specific market days, a nearby rival market could not open on the same days.
The Grand Bazaar, in Istanbul, Turkey, is often cited as the world’s oldest continuously-operating, market building. Its construction began in 1455, and today it houses about 3,600 retail shops.
In China there have been street and wet markets for centuries. A wet market refers to a place where fruit, vegetables, fish, seafood and meat products are sold.
In modern times, many open-air markets in China are wholesale and retail, serving as both as a distribution center and retail shopping venue. To assist in the distribution of food, more than 9,000 wholesale produce markets operate in China.
One of the largest retail markets in China is the Beijing Zoo Market, a collection of 12 different markets, comprising some 20,000 tenant stall-holders, 30,000 employees and more than 100,000 customers daily.
In many large cities in China, fresh produce markets are gradually moving to online sales with door-to-door deliveries.
Throughout Asia there are night markets, floating markets and large indoor/outdoor markets.
Bangkok, Thailand boasts the world’s largest weekend market in Chatuchak. It is also famous for its floating market in the Taling Chan District, where vendors not only sell fresh produce from barges, but will also cook meals and snacks on board their vessels.
In India there are wholesale, retail and so-called terminal markets, each with specific sellers, buyers and products.
Terminal markets sell directly to the end-user, whether it be the consumer, food processor or shipping agent for export of agricultural products to foreign countries, with an example being the Bombay Terminal Market.
At fairs held on religious days, vendors deal in livestock and agricultural produce. A Landa bazaar is a market with low prices for only secondhand, mostly imported, general goods.
In Australia, there are several historic outdoor and indoor markets, and many farmers markets.
The Queen Victoria Market, Melbourne’s central market, opened in 1878, but markets had been opening on the site before that.
In Sydney, the Rocks Market, focuses on crafts, jewelry and leather goods and operates at weekends. The Haymarket is one of the main produce markets and fresh-caught seafood is sold several days a week at the Sydney Fish Market.
Since the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service began tracking farmers markets in 1994, the number of markets in the United States has grown from 1,755 to 8,268 in 2014.
In 2013, the states with the most farmers markets included: California (759), New York (637), Illinois (336), Michigan (331) and Ohio (300). Total annual sales at U.S. farmers’ markets are estimated to exceed $1 billion. Perhaps the most well-known farmers market in the U.S. is New York City’s Union Square Greenmarket, which began with just a few farmers in 1976.
Today, in peak season, there are 140 regional producers selling at the Greenmarket, everything from just-picked fresh fruits and vegetables, heritage meats and award-winning farmstead cheeses, artisan breads, jams, pickles, to a profusion of cut flowers and plants, wine, ciders, and maple syrup. An estimated 60,000 persons shop there each market day. In non-COVID-19 times, visitors can watch and taste cooking demonstrations by some of New York’s best chefs that prepare local foods.
The open-air market has a past that dates back to the earliest civilizations. Today, our modern version of this market has a promising future. Consumers want local food raised by sustainable agricultural methods and handmade, one-of-a-kind arts and crafts made by artisans in their community.