Are Farmers' Markets That Good for Us?

James McWilliams is a historian at Texas State University and author of the new book “Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly”. (Yes, that is a hackle-raising subtitle, especially if you are a devout locavore, which some of us are not.) McWilliams has turned up on this blog before, both concerning locavorism and his purchase of a homeless man’s cardboard sign. This is his first of a series of guest posts on farmers’ markets.

Do Farmers’ Markets Really Strengthen Local Communities?
Part One
by James McWilliams
A Guest Post

For several years now I’ve been arguing that buying locally produced food doesn’t necessarily lower one’s carbon footprint.

“Are we about to witness fistfights over the price of baby arugula?”

Naturally, the agro-intellectuals have bristled at my assessment. More often than not I’m told that I’m missing the ultimate point of being a locavore. Local food is not only about reducing our carbon footprint. It’s about strengthening community.

For some reason, though, this response falls flat. Sure, on an intuitive level, the claim makes perfect sense. Milling around the farmers’ market with like-minded foodies, buying fresh produce grown on nearby small farms, listening to local musicians play local songs, and supporting a variety of homegrown artisans certainly qualifies as an enriching community experience. But can we say with any assurance beyond anecdotal evidence that the thousands of farmers’ markets established over the last twenty years have brought together communities across the United States? If so, how? And for whom?

Markets encompass a wide range of experiences. For me, primarily because I don’t view the farmers’ market as a venue to nurture community bonds, my transactions tend to be as personal or impersonal as if I were shopping at a generic grocery store. Don’t get me wrong — I respect my local farmers very much. Still, I approach their stalls not to get to know them, but to buy the excellent food they sell.

Many of my more extroverted friends wouldn’t care if their farmer-friend was hawking shriveled turnips dusted in cow dung. They’re there to have a social experience. Their aim is to personalize shopping in a way unachievable at Wal-Mart. In this sense, I suppose, a farmers’ market can foster community ties in the ways conventional grocery stores cannot.

But even so, something is missing. Most notably, I don’t see how community cohesion necessarily follows the fact that one can, if one wants, interact with the person who grew your food. Historically, such personalized economic transactions were the norm, but they were inherently fraught with risk and tension. In colonial America — a place I’ve studied in some depth — all markets were initially driven by face-to-face interaction. It should come as no surprise that things could get, well, personal. Markets were intensely competitive and exclusive. Everyone knew everyone. And that was often the problem. The court records of colonial New England are replete with personal market transactions gone awry.

When merchant-led expansion fostered systematic trade with distant markets, the nature of local trade changed. Mediators entered the scene. The supply chain lengthened. The personal nature of exchange yielded to standardized norms required by middle men who had only a tenuous connection to the products for sale. Impersonal mediators and distant institutions (such as banks and insurance companies) ultimately diffused face-to-face interactions by placing a buffer between buyers and sellers. Markets became larger and less personal. Neighbors became customers. Legal battles continued apace, but they were not personal. Just business.

Today, as we return to local markets (farmers’ markets have grown from 400 in 1970 to over 4,000 today), who is to say that the novelty of personal exchange will not gradually fade? Who is to say that the mystique of the local farmer will not diminish and that we’ll eventually come to realize that what we’re engaging in at the farmers’ market is, no matter what the perceived social benefits, ultimately an economic experience? Are we about to witness fistfights over the price of baby arugula? Probably not. But if we did, there’d be a historical precedent for it.


Artemis

When the local farmer can capture a "retail" price directly from the consumer without supporting globo-capitalism, that's a win-win for me: Helps the small farmer survive, takes some money away from "shareholders." To me, that's the point - it's not social and it's not about my carbon footprint. Oh, and it's fresh.

MikeM

The transactions are impersonal because you happily accept the terms. But if the farmer announced that this was their last week with a stall because [insert calamity/hardship here], what would your reaction be or the reaction of the consumers at the market? What if he announced he had to raise the price of his arugula?

These are the kinds of issues that make the interactions personal. Your reaction to his news potentially is a lot different than if Walmart stopped carrying arugula at the prices you expect.

Kim

I buy locally because I care about how my food is produced, and buying locally is one way I can confirm it. I think how my food is produced is important for my health, the health of my family, and the health of the planet. How hard is that to understand?

Joe

I think people like Artemis (comment #1) miss a fairly important point.

Sure, you could take away all of the supply chains and intermediaries and just deal directly with the manufacturers of things [food, TVs, whatever]; but even disregarding the issue of distribution [certainly while a few people can utilize farmers' markets, it's impossibly inefficient for everyone or even very many people to do so], if you did away with global retail and distribution chains, what exactly would people do for a living? Such a high percentage of people earn their livings working in the midst of that 'globo-capitalism', not just shareholders, but employees, that if we did go to a direct-sale system and somehow made it work, you'd just end up with mass unemployment...

Eric

I guess we have to wait for part two to get to a point ...

As a small farmer in the Midwest, I have no choice but to sell my food at a farmers market, or to a local restaurant or some other vehicle that is "local". Walmart, etc do not purchase from local producers. Also, I do not (and don't want to) grow food that can be transported 2000 miles.

You say, "I respect my local farmers very much" and how is that? You respect them, just do not want them to sell anything? Nice.

Waiting for part two ....

natjanel

In my area we have one large farmer's market downtown that has all the "community" features you describe and then there is another one further down the road that has many of the same farmers represented but none of the peripherals. I MUCH prefer the latter. Prices are a bit lower, produce is just as abundant, but I don't have to put up with all the strollers, musicians, vendors, household pets, etc. Impersonal, but direct economic transactions is my way to go. Thanks for the useful discussion and giving me the chance to voice my opposition to our big downtown market.

jay

Face-to-face interactions between producers and consumers fosters, among other things, a commitment on the producers' part to provide the highest quality product. Think of all the food recalls we have had recently. Does a Midwestern slaughterhouse owner have any personal involvement or shame if consumers die from e coli-tainted meat? No, it's an unfortunate business problem. However, the farmer who sells his product directly to the buyer, knows their face and maybe their name, has a totally different relationship. It's a relationship based on community ties, where what we do has a direct impact on those around us.

Margaret

If I can cut Whole Foods OR Wal-Mart out of the deal and know that the farmer/grower is getting the money, then it works for me.

kurt mitenbuler

First and importantly, you're not "wrong". These are the sorts of observations historians and academics are good at, and there's nothing in your view that you can't support with credible reference material. Makes great quotables for the Friday afternoon cocktail (or organica gardening) party circuit.

After that, it's shallowness is breathtaking.

You don't seem particularly engaged in strengthening community bonds, so the farmers market by itself isn't going to help. If you are only interested in the exchange of commodities for goods, that's where it stops. OK.

For those that have an interest in strengthening community bonds, that means getting to know your neighbor. This is fraught with peril and anxiety for most academics; they might actually have to confront realities contrary to their preconceived notions of society and how it works. Personalities and undisciplined impulses explode all over the place in vibrant communities. Get used to it.

For those of us that want to know what it means to be a farmer in 20th century America, and what it actually means to derive one's income from such activity, the farmers market is a classroom, laboratory, and test case all wrapped up into one. You might want to think about that for a few moments.

There is no good economic argument for farmers markets, and personally, I don't really care about all that carbon footprint stuff, but that's another story that requires a lot of reference material to support, so I digress.........

One goes to the farmers market to buy food, meet neighbors, reduce driving in an urban environment, slow down, maybe discuss the ins and outs of kale versus collards, and generally educate oneself to how the world works outside of institutional environments wherein attitudes and actions are proscibed within tight boundaries of administrative and rewards are earned by leapfrogging out past some past observation to another, supported by credible references.

IOW, enter the real world, Oh Teacher.......learn something. Until then, you've consigned yourself to just another position inventing detached academic viewpoints on something quite simple and wonderful.

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Patrick

Another potential benefit of the local farmers market (depending on its overall focus) is that it reduces barriers to entry for local entrepreneurs. What if Mom wants to start selling that wonderful and unique pie she loves to make? Where else can she find such a place where shoppers readily exist and yet she can start out as small as needed?

Tim O'Rourke

Any time my tomato was ripened on the vine, 50 miles outside of Chicago (where I live) instead of on the back of a 18-wheeler on its way to Chicago from Argentina-- I'm happy.

Chris Vinsonhaler

This argument is perverse and pernicious in the extreme. You have trivialized a holistic exchange into boutique economics. And you have willfully misrepresented both the consumer and the provider. The personal exchange matters because it ensures fair trade. Look for the "shriveled turnips dusted in cow dung"--or the equivalent--from the agri-industrial model. Not at the local farmer's market.

paulwesterberg

Fresh produce tastes better and the prices are often the same as or lower than the grocery store.

I've never had a bad experience or felt ripped off at the farmers market and said to myself, I wish there was a level of bureaucracy in place that would protect me from price fluctuations while degrading quality.

Kerry Tremain

To the extent that I experience a community feeling at the market, it's as much about neighbors as about interacting with farmers. I find myself trying to imagine, as they buy golden beets or early girl tomatoes, the dinners they'll make that evening for family or friends. Yes, the claims are overblown, and not always rational. It's more "how ya' doing" than holding hands in a circle. Still, there's something about knowing where your food comes from that relieves one's modern alienation from farm and field. Even if you have no interest in going back.

Andrew

Let me try out an idea that I haven't thought totally through . With the standardization of the supply chain, only standard things get through the supply chain. One benefit to farmers markets is that it brings some non-standard things to the table, creating pressure for more diversity in the supply chain. Take heirloom tomatoes. A few years ago, you would never see any unusual tomatoes at your typical grocery store. Tomatoes bread for shelf-stability and shipping durability. With the proliferation of farmers markets, people began to see that you can actually buy tasty tomatoes. Now, it is common to see heirloom tomatoes at the local Safeway. I think similar things have happened with diversity of greens, Japanese eggplant, quality peaches when in season here in Colorado, tasty in-season corn (best when very fresh), fresh eggs and chicken that taste better than the standard factory farm raised), and the demand for fresh herbs just to name a few things off the top of my head.

I believe one benefit to Farmers markets is to create a laboratory for diversity that the standard supply chain doesn't necessarily create.

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Dick Bloom

Bravo bravo Artemis. Farming is and always has been a uniquely satisfying occupation for those who are cut out for it, many of whom have grown up with it and can imagine doing nothing else with their lives, and the farmer's market does, indeed, help the small or family farmer have a fighting chance against agribusiness and corporate predation. As for McWilliams, I suggest you take an extended vacation from New York City and the paranoia it breeds and refocus on human relationships. Perhaps you're incapable of interacting with a farmer without making him feel, shall we say, uncomfortable in your presence. In that case, I don't blame you for imagining that on some homocidal impulse he might poison your okra.

kurt mitenbuler

Couple things after proofreading.....

I should have said 21st century (shows my age), and the 2nd to last paragraph should read "administration" with a comma after it, instead of "administrative".

Oops........

JonasW

Your point is correct, social interaction between something as simple as food shouldn't really matter. It doesn't matter for me, but it does for many people. If they're willing to pay a surcharge because the economies of scale of local farmers aren't as large, so be it.

What I appreciate about farmer's markets, and what I suspect you may touch upon further, is the complete information that is provided about the goods sold. Buying goods from across the globe may be cheaper, but the quality assurance of those goods may be lower. (All that you have to depend upon are regulatory agencies, which may or may not be good enough for one's personal tastes.) Local goods are grown by a reasonably small group of people reasonably close to where you live. While you cannot hold a giant agricultural firm accountable for a bushel of mealy apples, you can give local producers a piece of your mind (and perhaps steer your social network away from future purchases from them!).

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carlivar

What I find hilarious about farmer's markets is the vehicles these farmers transport their goods in.

Everyone congratulates themselves for some sort of pseudo-environmental benefit, but most of the farmers arrive in old trucks and vans.

A 1982 Chevy van doesn't get very good mileage and is horrible from an emissions standpoint.

Transporting goods in bulk to a supermarket is far more efficient.

Paul

I once heard an economist on NPR talking about how stupid it was for well-paid, educated people to bother cooking their own food at all. From a purely economic perspective, it is more efficient for them to eat all their meals out.

Happily, humans do think care about things other than money sometimes. In my experience as a small farmer, eaters have a deep and profound desire to know more about how and where their food is grown. That deep human emotion has been ignored for the past 50 years by the corporations profiting from the food chain, as has the connection between health and nutrition.

Individuals do not have the ability to tell Kraft or Coke "I don't like this soup, soda, etc., why don't you make one that is healthy and tastes good". But when you go to a farmer's market you can make requests and try to influence what the farmer is growing.

A small minority is fighting to take our food supply back from the corporations that are making us fat and giving us diabetes. They are having some successes, and the expansion of farmers markets is one.

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