By Ray Carbone
Who knows where the world’s first farmers market was? Historians point to ancient Egypt, and American foodies know of an 18th century operation in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, that’s still working.
In New Hampshire, you may need look no further than Warner. Bob Bower, the owner of Kearsarge Gore Farm, said his town’s small, seasonal outdoor market has been operating since 1976. That would make it 41 years old when it opens up during the annual Spring Into Warner community arts festival Saturday.
But is true? After all, when did someone start tracking the exact day that local farmers first began gathering in a single spot to sell their goods, instead of than simply hawking them from a wooden stand in front of their farms?
Well, as we’re learning in this fake news era, the truth is sometimes relative.
“Some time ago, I said that the Warner Area Farmers Market is the oldest, continuous-running farmers market in the state,” Bower joked, “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 67-year-old local farmer is right. In the 1960s, New Hampshire farmers began losing their connection to local communities after large food distributors began providing a richer variety of products. Along with the shift in from local farms to big outlets like Weeks Dairy for dairy products, the changes had what Bower called “a serious impact” on local agriculture.
‘To be a good farmer 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.’ – Bob Bower of Kearsarge Gore Farm
“A lot of farms went out of business,” he said. “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 brought on some positive changes. “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 recalled. “And one of those was to start community farmers markets.
The Warner Area Farmers Market wasn’t very big when it was started by an eclectic group of local people. A half dozen vendors would sell fruits, organic veggies and homemade goods to 20 or 30 customers.
“I remember there were quite a bit of plants and crafty type of stuff,” said Bob Heslop, who managed the operation for many years. “It was mostly hobby farmers, retired people raising vegetables and (farm) owners.”
Heslop sold wooden objects made on his nearby property. “At that time it was quite a fad, in the early seventies, all those homemade things,” he noted. Robert W. Heslop Woodworking is now known up and down the east coast for the handmade manufactured wooden pushcarts he produced.)
Charlie Brown sold winter squash, summer squash and his paintings of local landscapes, and local elementary school teacher Mary Alice Lamenzo hawked rocks and crystals. “She was into that New Age-y stuff,” Heslop recalled.
Lamenzo was also heavily involved in the protests against the Seabrook Nuclear Power Plant in the 70s and 80s. “She was very proud of the fact that she’d left some of here crystals inside the nuclear reactor,” Heslop said.
Judy Courser of Courser Farm brought homemade 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 said.
Bower started going to the market in the early 1980s. “I brought whatever we had on my family farm, like lettuce,” he said. “My mother spun and wove wool, so I’d bring some woolen 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. Now we sell whatever people want: maple syrup, lamb, pork, and our ‘world famous’ salad mix.
“To be a good farmer you need to be the most intelligent person in the world,” Bower reflected. “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.”
What keeps him coming back to the Warner Area Farmers Market every week? “I’ve been down there every Saturday for the last hundred years or so,” Bower joked. “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 with other farmers and friends. It is a social event and a commercial endeavor – it’s inseparable. It’s an integral part of Warner life.”
The market is opened every Saturday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. There’s often a local musician or two on hand to entertain customers. The vendors pay the musicians a little, then send them home with some fresh vegetables.
This story first appeared in the InterTown Record of Sutton, N.H., on May 9, 2017.