By Liza Ayres, NFU Intern
The Montgomery Farm Women’s Cooperative Market is a landmark on Bethesda’s Wisconsin Avenue. For decades, it has not only served as a hub for residents looking to purchase fresh produce and artisanal products but has also represented Montgomery County’s abundant agricultural history and continued support of local farmers.
Amid the Great Depression’s declining prices and stalled production, a group of farm women decided to create the market to expand their sources of income. They took two years to prepare for the market, meeting with specialists in nutrition, poultry, dairy production and animal husbandry, as well as working to perfect their crafts and sewing methods.
The first sale day took place in 1932, when nineteen women set up small stands of meat, baked goods, vegetables, jams and jellies in a vacant store. The market quickly became successful, necessitating a permanent location to accommodate additional vendors and growing crowds of customers. It found its permanent home in a simple, white-paneled building shaded by sycamore trees with a large graveled courtyard in the front.
Most of the original stands are still running, passed down from parents to children and grandchildren. These farmers, like the generations before them, still run cooperatively. As members of the market’s board, they hold annual meetings to establish how they pool resources to pay the market’s rent and utilities costs. Most vendors own their stand and pay a commission on their sales to the collective fund that keeps the market going.
While the market is no longer run solely by women, it still strives to its original mission to defend the social services and environmental sustainability of Montgomery County by elevating local growers and producers. With local production in mind, the market will only grant stands to applicants who operate a farm in Maryland or Montgomery County.
The Montgomery Farm Women’s Cooperative Market has created a community among local farmers and area residents. Customers note how they’ve formed friendships with the vendors, and these personal connections, along with their values of buying locally-sourced produce, keep them coming back week after week.
In addition to the bonds formed with their customers, vendors have also established relationships with each other. One vendor lamented that land in Montgomery County is expensive, but the organizational set-up of the cooperative gives farmers a steady income source and a network of fellow farmers to lean on if times become increasingly difficult. Unlike some farmers markets that witness a flux of vendors over the years, the management style at the Montgomery Farm Women’s Cooperative Market has incentivized vendors to stay involved with the market for a long time.
The Montgomery Farm Women’s Cooperative Markett offers an intimate and unique shopping experience where customers can engage with vendors and witness first-hand the structure of a successful and long-standing cooperative. It has survived economic ups and downs to serve its community for decades, and will likely do so for many generations to come.
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