Historic farmers markets remain popular

Published 10:30 am Thursday, May 26, 2022

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With a rich history, faithful following and modern versions, farmers markets have withstood the test of time.

The first U.S. market was established in 1730 in the center of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Farmers markets were created to support the buying and selling of fresh, local produce, meats and baked goods, and they have increased in number and popularity over the years.

In 2019, there were over 8,000 markets operating nationwide, according to the USDA. Virginia has almost 300 of its own, including three that are among the oldest in the nation.

The Old Town Farmers’ Market in Alexandria is one of the longest continuously operating farmers markets in the U.S. Within view of Alexandria City Hall, more than 70 vendors sell farm-grown produce throughout the seasons, plus meats, seafood, dairy products, breads, pastries, hot prepared foods, juices, ciders, cut flowers and potted plants.

The market offers something for everybody and attracts thousands of families, foodies, tourists and neighborhood regulars, said Alfred Coleman, deputy director of administration in the city’s Department of General Services, which oversees the market.

Between harvest seasons, vacant produce spaces are filled with vendors selling value-added food products and handmade goods.

The Lynchburg Community Market is the third-oldest continuously operating farmers market in America. The market was established in 1783 as a town square for the expanding city, serving as a social gathering space. The open-air market took on a commercial component when it was rebuilt in 1814.

After moving from its original downtown location to its current site in 1932, the market’s role in the community also shifted. The market moved away from its function as a social center and began operating primarily as a farmers market sometime in the mid-20th century.

Since then, the market’s growth has coincided with the downtown area’s resurgence, and it now serves as a hub for locals to buy farm-raised foods.

“Downtown Lynchburg is technically a food desert, and on Saturdays we’re the only place in (the city) where you can have access to fresh fruits and veggies,” said assistant market manager Darrius Slaughter. “I think the community really acknowledges how much of an important role the community market plays.”

The Historic Roanoke City Market has been in the same downtown Roanoke location since its founding in 1882. The market boasts the title of Virginia’s oldest continuously operating open-air market. Open seven days a week, it offers residents fresh, local foods and artisan crafts from around 50 farmers and craftsmen.

“It’s such a jewel,” said Eric Pendleton, the market’s manager. “We have some vendors whose families go back to the 1920s at this market. It’s become such a tradition.”

Named one of the “Great American Public Places,” by the Lyndhurst Foundation, the market has evolved over time. In 1979, the old wooden structure was upgraded, and colorful awnings that showcase vendor stalls were added. The iconic City Market Building, which once housed an indoor market, was sold in the ‘80s.

Drawing thousands during peak season, the market’s unique setting and popularity keep it sought-after real estate for vendors.