Farmers Market Week: Southern farmers markets fill need for community, sustainability

Todd A. Price
Southern Kitchen
A young shopper exams the produce at East Atlanta Village Farmers Market.
  • Farmers Market Week will be celebrated Aug. 7 to 13.
  • Farmers markets are filling a growing need for community and sustainability.
  • Richard McCarthy, president of the World Farmers Market Coalition, spoke to Southern Kitchen about the movement.

Farmers Market Week arrives this year as the increasingly popular community-supported businesses enjoy rising global popularity. 

Many farmers markets will host special events during the annual week of celebrations organized by the Farmers Market Coalition from Aug. 7 to 13. 

Globalization and sustainability concerns have boosted demand for local connections like those made at farmers markets, Richard McCarthy, president of the World Farmers Markets Coalition, told Southern Kitchen

McCarthy, who founded New Orleans' Crescent City Farmers Market, spoke to Southern Kitchen about the health and mission of farmers markets in the South and beyond.

Southern Kitchen: Farmers Market Week is a time to celebrate our markets. What should we be celebrating this year?

Richard McCarthy: The U.S. model of a farmers market is recognized around the world as the gold standard. These are more than just places for transactions. They are places to build community. That has been contagious. At a time when we have become so disjointed between town and country, between red and blue, between those who want to build things and those who want to break things, the farmers market is the bridge that is restoring hope and community.

Richard McCarthy is president of the World Farmers Markets Coalition.

SK: How did farmers markets in the United States fare during the pandemic?

RM: I think markets’ agility during the pandemic was off the charts. Whether it's drive-throughs, pre-orders online or delivery systems, farmers markets have busted out of the parameters of their physical locations and have done so without losing their core principles. 

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SK: The South has a long agricultural tradition. How can farmers markets connect those rural areas to the cities of the South?

RM: The relationship between town and country is one of the key issues that is top of the agenda the world over. Rural areas near cities are endangered because cities gobble them up. But these areas are also the most viable farm communities because they have access to a customer base that would value their products if the right infrastructure were built.

SK: Are farmers markets mainly important for cities?

RM: Even in small towns, I think that markets have a role to play. Markets are really platforms for learning. The consumers learn what's in season. And the farmers learn so much when selling to the public and working next to their competitors. The goal is to generate rural wealth.

SK: What holds back the growth of farmers markets in the South?

RM: I think in the South, one of the most frustrating things I always found was that the footprint of the plantation economy meant that all of the intellectual capital in the land grant universities was devoted to large scale, conventional, chemical agriculture to produce commodities that go through fairly narrow selling streams. We need to diversify. In the South, we have more food culture than the rest of the country. I know those are fighting words, but I think it's true. And yet, getting those products to make that food is becoming harder and harder. These things can die.

A vendor sells fresh peas at The Market at Pepper Place in Birmingham, Alabama.

SK: How well do Southern farmers markets, both among the vendors and the customers, reflect their entire communities?

RM: Markets are so exciting because it's a fairly low threshold for entry into the markets for vendors. But do you have land? Do you have the time and the resources? There are other structural barriers that prevent us from being even better. Our work is not anywhere near done, especially on the issue of the markets being healthy expressions of pluralism.

Note: The interview was edited for length and clarity.

News tips? Story ideas? Questions? Call reporter Todd Price at 504-421-1542 or email him at taprice@gannett.com.