Who knows where the world’s first farmers market was?
Historians point to ancient Egypt and American foodies note an 18th century operation in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, that’s still in operation.
But in New Hampshire, you may need look no further than Warner, the small on the fringe of Lake Sunapee region that's probably best known for it's share of Mount Kearsarge.
Bob Bower, the owner of Kearsarge Gore Farm, says his town’s small, seasonal outdoor farmers market has been operating in front of the Town Hall every Saturday since 1976.
“This is the fortieth anniversary of the Warner Area Farmers Market,” he explains.
Could that be true? After all, when did someone start keeping track of the day that local farmers began converging in a single spot to sell their wares, rather than simply hawking them from a truck in front of their farms?
As it turns out, what's "true" is relative.
“Some time ago, I said that the Warner Area Farmers Market is the oldest, continuous-running farmers market in the state,” Bower jokes, “and nobody said anything different...so, we’re going to lay claim to that until somebody tells us different."
It’s entirely possible that the 66-year-old farmer is right.
In the 1960s, New Hampshire farmers began losing their connection to local communities when large food distributors began providing a richer variety of products at supermarkets, including imported varieties of locally-grown produce, like apples from Washington state and New Zealand.
That change, along with a shift in dairy operations from local farms to big outfits like Weeks Dairy, had what Bower describes as “a serious impact” on local agriculture.
“A lot of farms went out of business,” he says. “Dairy farms went from thousands (of cows) to a few hundred. And the apple orchards were no longer profitable because it became too difficult and expensive to market their products and compete.”
It was a tough situation – but it also signaled needed change for New Hampshire farmers.
“It was a good opening for the people who wanted to try a slightly different business model, who wanted to do things in a slightly different way,” Bower says. “And one of those was to start community farmers markets."
“In the late 1960s, there was a new wave forming. The trend began to move towards selling fruit and other organic foods and that was one of the motivating factors behind the Warner Area Farmers Market.”
When it began, the Warner market was not very big. The market was founded by an eclectic group of Warner residents. About a half-dozen local vendors would sell their fruits, veggies and homemade good to twenty or thirty customers, also locals.
Bob Heslop was one of the early sellers, and his version of the origin story doesn't quite match Bower's. He says the market actually started in the early 1970s.
Heslop still lives in town and recalls selling wooden objects he made in his shop at the market, including sturdy wheelbarrows that can now be found all over the east coast.
“At that time it was quite a fad, in the early seventies, all those homemade things.”
Another founder was Fred Creed, who died two years ago, Bower says. Creed sold baskets that he wove and chairs that he caned.
“And Charlie Brown – he’s gone now, but his son’s a selectman – would come down with winter squash, summer squash – and his paintings,” the farmer recalls. “Great (local scenic) paintings.”
If early customers were in the market for rocks and crystals, Heslop says they would have bought them from another late market founder, Mary Alice Lamenzo, who also taught at a local elementary school.
“She was into New Age-y stuff, " Heslop recalls. "And she was one of the lead protesters at the Seabrook Nuclear Power Plant (in the 1970s and 80s)...she was very proud of the fact that she got a tour and left some of her crystals inside the nuclear reactor.”
Judy Courser of the nearby Courser Farm brought baked goods to the market for many years.
“It was anything that people had, but it had to be grown or made in New Hampshire,” she says.
That rule is still in effect at the Warner Area Farmers Market, where today, the local, vendor-run model remains intact.
The market is open Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. There's often a local musician or two on hand entertaining customers as they shop. The vendors pay the musicians a little, and also send them home with plenty of fresh vegetables.
Courser has doubts about the "first in New Hampshire" claim some residents make about the farmers market, because as she remembers it, “We had people who told us how to do it.”
Bob Heslop says in the earliest days of the market, greenery and handmade items were popular.
“I remember there were quite a bit of plants and crafty type of stuff,” he says, “It was pretty much what it is today but we didn’t have any professional farmers. It was more like hobby farmers, retired people raising vegetables and flowers.”
“I started going in 1982 or ’83,” Bob Bower says. “I brought whatever we had on my family farm, like lettuce. My mother spun and wove wool so I’d bring some wooden products.
“I went down there with a pickup truck with lots of purple cabbages in it one day, and I’ve been going back every week since,” he said. “Now, we sell whatever people want: maple syrup, lamb and pork… And our ‘world famous salad mix.’”
Bower's been a farmer for most of his life, and says his first summer job was working for a local farmer as a teenager.
“What I find interesting about farming is the challenge of farming,” he says. “To be a good farmer – to have a good farm – you need to be the most intelligent person in the world. You need to know about soil science, animal husbandry, business… You need to be a mechanic, a carpenter, a philanthropist and a weatherman. To have a good farm is both an art and a form of knowledge.”
But what keeps Bower coming back to the Warner Area Farmers Market every week is something much more basic.
“I’ve been down there every Saturday for the last hundred years or so,” he jokes. “I came back (after the first time) because it was fun. It was not just part of your job but it was part of keeping contact with the local farming community, with customers and other farmers and other friends.
“It is a social event, and a commercial endeavor – it’s inseparable...It’s an integral part of Warner life.”
Ray Carbone is a Warner resident who regularly writes about New Hampshire life for numerous publications, including the Boston Globe. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org