One of the hot phrases of the day for foodies in the United States is farm to table. This "social movement" is described in good detail on Wikipedia, however, there is no mention of how old the term is, whether it was popularized by any particular subset of this social movement, or whether it traces back decades or even centuries.

Searching newspaper archives does show a tremendous spike in the term in the past several years, but interestingly there was also a lot of use of the phrase around 1915, usually referring to a government program where consumers could purchase commodities directly from farmers by post at reasonable prices.

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Google NGram seems to suggest that the term never really disappeared from its early uses referring to these government programs through today, where the term is very trendy and often used by the eco-conscious.

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So does the term farm to table as it is fashionably used today to refer to a lifestyle choice focused around environmental awareness and nutrition derive from earlier uses of the term that had meanings related to government programs that delivered parcels of food by mail? Or was the term coined separately with regard to the contemporary use?

For a bonus, are there other meanings this phrase has held over the last century? Did its earliest sense in fact derive from government programs or was the phrase around even before that?

  • 3
    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it's not a question about the English language.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Apr 23, 2018 at 19:49
  • 2
    I respectfully disagree with Hot Licks. This question is tagged "historical-change" (For questions about how the English language has changed over time) and "phrase-origin" (For questions about the origin of a phrase, also consider 'etymology'). I believe this question is on-topic and appropriately tagged. Commented Apr 23, 2018 at 19:59
  • Seems more like a history or political question.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Apr 23, 2018 at 20:04
  • 3
    Seems on-topic to me. Farmers' markets might be a good term to search. Farmers used to drive their produce to market every now and then.
    – Xanne
    Commented Apr 24, 2018 at 1:13
  • 1
    Specific phrases—such as "America first"—may have historical or cultural resonance, whether there is an explicit ideological or spiritual connection between their various incarnations or not. That, I suspect, is part of what makes them both effective and complicated as set terms. In any event, I consider an inquiry into the history of "farm to table" worthy of investigation and entirely on topic at this site, and I am voting to reopen this question.
    – Sven Yargs
    Commented Apr 25, 2018 at 0:18

1 Answer 1


The use of the term "farm to table" has changed over time. Its current life-style use as described in the Wikipedia article mentioned in the question seems to be a re-use of its 1915 use. This early farm to table movement was promoted by the U.S. Post Office and B.F. Goodrich; it was rated a dismal failure by the agriculture department at the University of Wisconsin, as reported in Trade: A Journal for Retail Merchants, Volume 23, in January 2016. A few articles show up from 1915 to 1919 or so in the NGram search relating to this effort.

After this period, the "farm to table" phrase refers not to the way one "ought" to acquire food and eat, but to the entire process, which may have many steps, by which food gets from the farm (including not only the vegetable farm but poultry and livestock farms) to the table, probably with interim trips to the cannery and the slaughterhouse, the packer, and the like. The various reports over the years are directed toward trying to ensure safety and quality throughout each stage of this multi-step process.

This emphasis continues to dominate the use of the term until the advent of Alice Waters and her restaurant, Chez Pannisse, in Berkeley, California. Opened in 1971, the restaurant was unprofitable for eight years or so and needed infusions of funds from friends, but always emphasized fresh from the farm, locally sourced food, and was eventually a great success that changed the views of many and was widely adopted across the country. The use of the term as a life-style value then exists side by side with its use referring to the entire process.

One NGram document from 1996 shows the direct farm to table movement in action--the cook receives a farm to table produce box in the mail:

Jul 15, 1994 - I grow fresh mint in my yard and this is a wonderful way to use it. Love the health benefits of fresh ginger and mint! Making it again right now! roseannpiazza from Saint James, New York /. flag if inappropriate. I just received a "farm to table" produce box this morning which included fresh ginger and fresh mint. I decided to try my hand at making this lemonade. It is absolutely delicious!!

In spite of the enthusiasm for restaurants that serve locally grown food fresh from the farm and services that deliver fresh food, the vast majority of food goes from farm to table (at home or in a restaurant) via many steps, during all of which safety (as well as maintenace of quality) need to be considered and are a major focus of Federal and state departments of agriculture.

Farmers' markets have become more common, but account for a minimal part of the total food supply.

The OED, under farmer, n2 (earliest quotation 1864), has an entry for farmers market; it has no entry for farm to table, although it cites a book that includes the phrase in its title.

farmers' market n. (also farmer's market, farmers market) orig. N. Amer. a market to which farmers bring their produce to sell directly to the public; a building or area designed for this purpose.

Los Angeles has a large famous farmers' market established in 1934 or so.

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