The farmers market at the Historic Dairy District in Carrick. Photo by TH Carlisle.

We think of farmers markets as a modern trend. But the Pittsburgh region has a heritage of local growers serving local markets that goes back many decades and survives to this day.

All told, there are more than 25 farmers markets across the Pittsburgh area, from the East End Food Co-Op — running consistently out of East Liberty since 1946 — to the Hilltop Urban Farm in Mt. Washington, which opened in 2017.

Hilltop is expanding its youth engagement and training programs and is looking to be the largest urban agriculture site in the nation once all 23 acres are developed.

But big or small, at least one Pittsburgh-area farmers market is open every day of the week during summer.

To support these local institutions, the city of Pittsburgh launched a free online tool on May 11 that connects local farmers markets with each other, and with growers and potential customers.

“What we’re trying to do is get more people to buy from farmers,” says Shelly Danko-Day, the city’s open space specialist and urban agriculture and food policy adviser. “And to dispel the rumor that farmers markets are expensive.”

Known as the Pittsburgh Regional Farmers Market Network, the site offers a map showing every farmers market in the area with links to their websites and information on which forms of payment they accept.

The site also helps markets promote themselves and connects market managers (many of them volunteers operating with no operational support) with each other to share tips and best practices.

“Our study found that the farmers market managers never communicated with each other,” says Danko-Day.

The initiative is based on the recommendations of the report Strengthening Pittsburgh’s Farmers Markets, released earlier this year.

Danko-Day notes that many of the markets currently in the network serve areas of the city that are chronically underserved, particularly in terms of the food access and workforce development.

While she is happy to support the innovative harvests happening in urban farms across the city, Danko-Day says her team, as well as the city government, is especially interested in using the platform to connect the city’s markets with farmers further afield in Western Pennsylvania.

“We’re supporting the small farm economy — the local growers,” she says.

As our nation’s traditional centers of food production get hammered by the increasingly dire effects of climate change, developing solid local food systems will cost less and be much more stable.

“We want to make sure it is economically viable to be a farmer,” she says. Because “we’re just going to keep needing them more.”

Bill O'Toole was a full-time reporter for NEXTpittsburgh until October, 2019. He previously reported in Myanmar.