Going local

A public market represents free enterprise at its grassroots best. One of the oldest and most widespread forms of retail trade, it cuts out the middleman, directly connecting producer and consumer.

A fellow from M.I.T. recently analyzed about 3,000 clay tablets written between the fifth and the first centuries B.C. by scribes employed by city officials in Babylon, one of the great Centers of the Universe at the time. Among other things, this scholar found records of the farmers’ market, where city folks could buy things like locally grown barley, dates, mustard, cardamom, sesame and wool.

The farmer/historian Hesiod, living in fifth-century B.C. Greece, wrote that what he couldn’t sell at the public market in his village he took to Athens, where he could be assured of fixed prices for his crops.

The chroniclers accompanying Cortez on his conquest of Mexico described the Spaniards’ astonishment when they first visited the Market of Tlatelolco (as guests of the emperor Montezuma), in the northern section of the Aztec capital. Tlatelolco, a walled public square, was three times the size of the celebrated market in Salamanca, in Spain. The Spaniards were bedazzled by the vast array of products offered by merchants and farmers packed shoulder to shoulder, peddling the wares and produce that fueled a great cosmopolitan center.

Farther south, Pachacuti — one of the 13 great emperors of the Inca Empire — is credited with having decreed four market days a month across a domain that stretched across an area comparable to the southeastern coastal states from Florida to Virginia.

There are several excellent reasons why governments and cities have sanctioned farmers’ markets for thousands of years.

Farmers’ markets attract shoppers to specific neighborhood commercial districts, create affordable retailing opportunities for small businesses, help preserve farmland, and re-activate underused or undesirably used public spaces (such as vacant lots).

Within a given community, a farmers’ market creates a safe, inviting and lively public space that attracts a diverse array of people. Often, these spaces host other activities as well, and they have the potential to become the heart and soul of a community.

And finally, farmers’ markets support locally owned, independent businesses that practice a kind of cooperative competition.

Curious about this idea, I called up my gardening pal Jenifer Miller. She and business partner Kirk Williams are pretty typical of the folks you can buy produce from at any one of the 20 or so farmers’ markets in WNC. These informal, open-air operations are sometimes known as tailgate markets, because people sell produce and added-value products (such as salsa, cheese or pesto) out of the back of their truck, car or van.

Jenifer and Kirk, who farm in the Grapevine community west of Mars Hill, are active participants in the West Asheville Tailgate Market (Wednesday evenings), the Madison County farmers’ market in Hot Springs (Thursday nights), and the Saturday-morning gig at the French Broad Food Co-op. Besides these weekly rendezvous with the public, Jennifer and Kirk also grow flowers that are sold in bouquets at Earth Fare (and soon at the Grove Arcade too). In addition, they send 15 subscriber families home with a full bag of groceries each week from late spring through fall. And these enterprising folks periodically do festivals as well. All this, mind you, on top of growing, harvesting, cleaning and packaging the food and flowers they sell.

“There is a definite competition that pushes everyone to do better,” Jenifer reports. It creates a better product for the consumer, because the people that are selling are the ones who have the edge on either product or presentation. “But at the same time,” she adds, “everyone is very supportive of each other.”

I try to be a fairly active consumer at three different tailgate markets in and around Asheville. I enjoy the atmosphere and interaction at tailgate markets, and I wondered about it feels for the folks who are working them. Jenifer says there are definitely regulars who show up wanting specific items. Each market, she notes, has its own ambiance. The West Asheville tailgate occupies a grassy area where people like to hang out and socialize with friends they run into. The Co-op market has a different but equally enjoyable vibe.

For gardeners, a major advantage of buying produce from the grower (besides the fact that you’re supporting a real person instead of a corporate grocery chain) is that it allows you to “test drive” some of those seductively named new veggies you see in seed catalogs before deciding to grow them yourself. It also helps you learn to eat seasonally, choosing the food that grows best in your area at particular times of the year.

But perhaps the biggest benefit of shopping at a tailgate market is the satisfaction of knowing that the only way you could get it any fresher would be to harvest it from your own garden.

So keep your eyes open for info about a tailgate market near you, or check the list on the ASAP Web site (www.buyappalacian.org), and give your taste buds a treat while supporting our local farmers.

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