Rise of the Farmers Market

What's for sale at Rocking R Dairy stall, Red Stick Farmers Market, Baton Rouge

What’s for sale at Rocking R Dairy stall, Red Stick Farmers Market, Baton Rouge

One of the most exciting things to happen to “we who are food obsessed” is the climbing popularity of urban farmers markets. Just about every major U.S. city now has at least one, with purveyors offering locally grown produce and meats, products that are often organic and, at the least, have a minimum of additives. This trend is also helping participating farmers, who pay less transportation, handling, refrigeration, and storage costs.

The farmer to consumer concept certainly isn’t new. As a matter of fact, until relatively recently, it was the only way city folk could buy food. And it’s still the way groceries are bought in many parts of the world.

A few years ago I spent two months in France, where mega-supermarkets are rare, and where I, along with most natives, followed the age-old tradition of purchasing produce, meat, cheese, and a few things we’d consider exotic from farmers in local markets. Either covered or open-air, le marché is a fixture in even the tiniest of towns.

So, aside from offering foie gras and horse meat, French farmers markets differ from ours in this important aspect: In France, the farmers market is a continuing part of their heritage, while in America, we’re just getting around to reviving the practice. There is one exception, however, and that’s the French Market in New Orleans.

New Orleans French Market, 1910

New Orleans French Market, 1910

Originally called the New Orleans Meat Market, the French Market was started in 1791 and is America’s oldest public market. A remnant from the time when public markets were the only way to do business, this food-selling complex has weathered wars, fires, hurricanes, political upheaval, and the crippling supermarket trend. Today it’s a six-block-long space that’s part flea market and part farmers market. The French Market is a treasure to the world of food history, and is certainly worth a visit by anyone.

Although ours is relatively new, here in Baton Rouge, we’re standing in lines at the always-packed Red Stick Farmers Market, while, in addition to the French Market, New Orleans has the equally popular Crescent City and Sankofa markets. Farmers markets have also sprung up in Shreveport, Lake Charles, Lafayette, and Covington, as well as in smaller towns such as Luling, Elton, Winnsboro, Franklin, and Eunice.

You never know what you’ll find at a farmers market. In addition to produce picked just that morning, I’ve come home with Creole cream cheese, herb plants, honey, goat meat, freshly baked bread, cornish hens, live crabs, squash blossoms, and duck eggs. One time I even bought leaf lard, the milky white fat that surrounds a pig’s kidney (and that’s a whole story in itself).

So grab a shopping bag and a twenty dollar bill and head for your closest farmers market. Sniffing out locally produced food is all the rage, and it’s the best thing you can do to help small family farmers.