The Decline of the French Farmers Market

The future of the quintessential French farmers market is facing big challenges.

If you followed shoppers at Joël Thiébault’s stand at the Marché President Wilson home, you could find yourself in any number of places; a neighboring posh apartment in the swanky 16th arrondissement, a hidden kitchen in the trendy Northern Marais neighborhood, or even an afternoon picnic aside the canal St. Martin. No matter where you ended up, you would be sure to eat well because Joël Thiébault sells some of the best produce you can find in a city of over 80 open-air markets.

Thiébault’s heirloom veggie varieties have rocketed him to super-stardom among French foodies who flock to his stand at the market every week. But Thiébault’s resuscitation of forgotten vegetables is not the only thing that makes him extraordinary at this Parisian market. An independent producer, Thiébault is a part of a shrinking community of farmers who bring their  locally grown produce to market.

Paris’ open-air markets, which closely resemble what which we call farmers markets in the states, have increasingly become centers where wholesale food is resold to shoppers. Middle men have edged out independent producers and local produce has been replaced by ersatz apples and oranges. The authenticity of the “farmers” market in France – a country that cherishes both its culinary tradition and artisan culture – is increasingly compromised by industrial agriculture and its unfortunate byproducts.

“There are less and less small producers,” Earl Martinet told me when I visited his stand at the Marché Cours de Vincennes. For Martinet, the extinction of local growers is due to multiple factors. For one, the price of land is constantly rising and for many farmers it seems more advantageous to sell their terrain to developers rather than continue to cultivate it. This decision is likely influenced by another threat to independent farms – the fact that the younger generation is less and less interested in taking over the family farm. Many of the independent farmers at these markets represent the last generation to continue in the family’s farming tradition. Once these vendors hang up their hoe for good, it is unlikely that their stand will be replaced by another representative of local agriculture.

Producers such as Martinet come to the market hoping to reach – and expand – an audience of Parisian locavores and ethical eaters, but even this investment of time is a threat to their business. The teams working the farms at home are often small and suffer from the absence of their colleagues who spend anywhere from one to four times a week at various markets around the city.

“It makes my days very long,” Marc Mascetti explained to me, while looking over his crates of carrots, potatoes, and salad varieties, “I have to go home after this and make up for the work that I missed while I was here.”

Mascetti, whose farm is located 34 km from Paris, explained that the most pervasive menace to local farmers is the fact that, “now the vegetables come from Spain, Italy, Belgium, Holland – even Argentina!” At his market, Marché Place Monge, he is the only independent, local farmer to have a stand, tout seul in a sea of industrial food resell outlets.

But where besides abroad do these squeaky-clean zucchinis and individually wrapped watermelons come from? The source is often Rungis, a huge food and flower market located 7 km south of Paris. Wholesale goods at this large-scale market offer an easier option for vendors who want to pull an easy profit from the open-air market scene.

Even many of the organic food vendors avail themselves of the Rungis option, stocking up on organically grown foods from around Europe and cashing in on the growing trend of favoring bio (organic) foods in France. The city’s two all-organic markets, the Marché Raspail and the Marché Batignolles are both full of such stands, where non-seasonal organic produce abounds. Even here, local farmers are not in the majority.

The victims of this mark-it-up-and-sell-it mentality aren’t only the independent producers, but the shoppers, as well. Many don’t realize that what they think is farm-fresh produce at the market may very well have been shipped in from Spain a week ago. While the concept of the open-air market in France has stayed the same, the content has drastically changed, and the evolution may have been slow enough that many market-goers haven’t noticed that the farmer has been taken out of the market.

If you visit an open-air market on a trip to Paris, here are some things to look out for to be sure that you are supporting local growers:

  • Key words. Look for words such as maraîcher, producteur, ferme, and Ile-de-France, which signify that the produce was grown by a producer on a farm in the vicinity of Paris. Local vendors will also usually put their name and location of the farm, so look out for that, as well.
  • Dirty, seasonal produce. This may seem like a no-brainer, but it is easy to get seduced by all the lovely looking vegetables on display at the market. But if you want the real deal, be ready to dust some dirt off your carrot before biting into it. Take a tour around the market to see what’s out there and try to determine what seems to be in season, and what seems to be airbrushed and a little too perfect.
  • Chatty Vendors. French markets are not just centers of commerce, but also lively social scenes. Local vendors especially like to take advantage of the opportunity to have an exchange with their customers while they are in town. Look for animated discussions over white asparagus and new potatoes – that’s where you want to be.