The father of the Philadelphia farmer's markets

Bob Pierson, founder of Farm to City, talks with a vendor at the Rittenhouse Square Farmer's Market. RON TARVER / Staff Photographer
Bob Pierson, founder of Farm to City, talks with a vendor at the Rittenhouse Square Farmer's Market. RON TARVER / Staff Photographer
Posted: May 24, 2012

It’s farmer’s market season once again, and Bob Pierson is zipping around the edges of Rittenhouse Square this Saturday morning long before any customers arrive, helping farmers hoist their white tents, moving folding tables and heavy coolers, counting heads, and ticking off the minutes till the eight-year-old market reopens, like it’s the Kentucky Derby or something.

On the dot of 9, Pierson shouts, “OK, we’re ready to sell! We’re open!” Within a half-hour, the sidewalks around the square are bustling with walkers, runners, and shoppers loaded up with babies, dogs, and canvas bags, many stopping to sample teeny squares of goat cheese or dabs of homemade hummus from the very farmers and artisans who made it.

As head of Farm to City, which runs this and 15 other farmer’s markets in Philadelphia and the suburbs, Pierson is in his element, which is to say smack dab in the forefront — and middle — of the local food movement in Philadelphia. He started agitating on his own in the early ’90s, spent four years getting the Food Trust’s first seven farmer’s markets up and running, and in 2000 broke out on his own to found Farm to City.

“Bob started on farmer’s markets so much earlier than a lot of other people did, and unlike a lot of people, he was thinking critically about where to put them,” says Alison M. Hastings, senior environmental planner at the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission, which estimates that “local food,” including farmer’s markets, accounts for 5 to 10 percent of the regional economy. Farm to City alone has generated more than $12.5 million in sales.

Pierson is generally recognized as the pioneer of the modern neighborhood farmer’s market in Philadelphia, as well as mentor, guide, workhorse, at once visionary and detail guy, and now, at age 72, elder statesman. That does not mean — no, no, no — that Pierson’s headed out to pasture, so to speak.

This much is true: He’s easing up just a little, accepting the fact — well, sort of — that he doesn’t have to be involved in 10,000 projects simultaneously or on the scene at every farmer’s market every moment it’s open. But you can see it on his face: The desire to do everything himself, and to do it just so, is still there and surprisingly strong, given that he’s more than earned the right to slow down.

“I used to do everything,” he acknowledges with a rueful smile, “but as we grow, I can afford to hire people. So I’m delegating. But it’s very hard because I like everything about this” — he points to the row of vendors along the square’s Walnut Street side — “and I like it done my way.”

Pierson, a slight fellow who also likes playing classical violin and crafting wood cabinets in his so-called spare time, is in his trademark “business casual” today — well-loved khakis and short-sleeve shirt, Panama hat, and glasses on a string around his neck. As he talks about his markets, which extend from South Philly to Swarthmore to Suburban Station, and other local-food programs, you sense an overachiever’s relish for the work, a scientist’s respect for the moving parts, and a personal and ideological affection for the farmers, who deserve to make a living wage. They are the reason he does this.

“It makes me feel so good to see all the young people going into farming. There’s a big surge in the city,” says Pierson, who was blessed with environmentally conscious parents and a childhood largely spent outside.

His father was a planner in Pittsburgh, Eugene, Ore., and Minneapolis before moving the family to Buckingham Township, Bucks County, when Pierson was 12. Bob Sr. became county parks director and in the 1950s founded the Bucks County Conservancy, which became the land-preservation organization Heritage Conservancy.

Pierson’s mother was a teacher, then a homemaker raising four kids, with a strong interest in nature. Pierson, a Central Bucks High School grad, recalls teenage years filled with baseball and touch football, and adventures in the backwoods and fields of then-rural Buckingham. He also liked — such a boy he was — sketching cars and making fishing lures and automatic spear guns.

After high school, the resumé launches into overdrive — B.S. in chemistry from Juniata College; Ph.D. in biochemistry from Brandeis University; postdoc research in genetics and biophysics in Naples, Italy, followed by more on cell division at the University of Wisconsin in Madison and, finally, a master’s degree in regional planning from the University of Pennsylvania.

In Italy, two monumental things happened. Pierson met his future wife, Giuliana Razzino, now director of the stem-cell lab at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, and, as he puts it, “I kind of woke up about food.

“I never thought to ask where things came from before then,” he says, but suddenly, at every turn, Italians were eating and eating, talking about food, their last meal, their next meal, arguing about where the best grapes come from and which soils produce the tastiest tomatoes. You better believe this boy from Bucks County listened — and ate — well.

In Madison, Pierson and his wife got involved in a food bank, set up a food co-op, and started a food-buying club that would serve as a model for Farm to City’s Winter Harvest. Then in 1972, the couple moved to Philadelphia, where Pierson left science for environmental planning, a discipline that allowed him to design areas of concentrated growth alongside preserved farmland.

In 1991 he helped start a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program at his office, and by 1996, he’d helped start the city’s first farmer’s market, at South Street and Passyunk Avenue, which continues today. That led to a job running community markets for the Reading Terminal Market Trust, forerunner of the Food Trust, which remains much larger than Farm to City — 26 farmer’s markets, plus other programs, in Philadelphia — and has a mission more directed toward low-income residents. Pierson split from the group because he wanted farmers to get better prices than they could get in low-income neighborhoods.

But the goals of these and the region’s other local-food organizations are not incompatible.

“It’s great to have someone like Bob on our side. He’s been championing local food, farmers, the use of public space for food access, buying clubs … way before locavore was coined,” says Nicky Uy, who manages the Food Trust’s markets.

Ann Karlen, executive director of the nonprofit Fair Food, describes Pierson as both “a very nice guy” and “a zealot,” which may sound contradictory if you don’t know him. “I mean that he has passion combined with persistence, that he’s very committed and doesn’t stop at no. That’s why he’s been so successful,” she says.

And, according to many, he is generous with his time and expertise, helping others to be successful.

“Bob gives his time to all kinds of different organizations, young farmers, urban farmers, nonprofits, college students. That’s something that really strikes me,” says Matt Weiss, who manages Farm to City’s markets.

Pierson’s success has bred more of the same. Where once he had to cold-call farmers over the dinner hour, hoping to persuade them to be part of a market, in 2012 Farm to City, for the first time, had to turn farmers away. “It’s not that there are too many farmers. It’s a matter of can communities support them. You can’t just say, ‘Oh, let’s do a farmer’s market’ and have it succeed,” Weiss says.

This is something Pierson grasps completely, according to 11th-generation farmer Brian Moyer, of the Penn State Cooperative Extension in Lehigh County, who counsels beginning farmers and has worked with Pierson for more than a decade.

“With his science background, he can set something up like an experiment and analyze it. The rest of us would do it by the seat of our pants, but Bob is not a seat-of-the-pants kind of guy,” he says.

Except when he’s riding his bike, which he does a lot, a fact duly noted by virtually everyone who knows him.

In early 1973, Pierson sold his car and hasn’t owned one since. He and his wife raised two daughters — they now have three granddaughters — and got to school, work, and everywhere else using buses and trains, bicycles and their own feet. Pierson rides a classic 1972 Raleigh Tourister, three-speed, all over town, from farmer’s market to farmer’s market, doing repairs and tune-ups himself.

Farmer Jeff Henry, the fifth generation on Cranberry Creek Farm in the Poconos, who’s selling his goat cheese at the Rittenhouse Square market, credits Pierson for pioneering work on farmer’s markets and then some. “Bob runs a good market and he seems humble,” Henry says, “and you don’t see too many people his age riding bikes around the city.”

Pierson has no plans to stop doing that — or anything else — anytime soon. “I’m gonna keep going till I run out of juice,” he says. Unable to resist the urge to define his terms, he explains: “Juice, that means energy.”

Contact Virginia A. Smith at 215-854-5720 or vsmith@philly.com.

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