Let the Farmers' Market Debate Continue

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. Last week, we posted the first of a series of three guest posts on farmers’ markets; here is the second.

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

Advocates of local food production have done a world of good in terms of bringing fresh food closer to home.

“That heroic ring makes me nervous.”

Understandably, they’ve eagerly promoted the community-enhancing implications of their work. At times, though, their promotions can get melodramatic. This quality further fuels my creeping suspicion that — when it comes to the claim that farmers’ markets enhance community cohesion — the Emperor’s clothes might be threadbare.

A researcher from the Division of Applied Economics and Management at Cornell has written that small-scale agriculture will “begin the movement to a more sustainable society in general, where materialism and heedlessness are replaced by community-based values and responsibility.”

Speaking for the Slow Food movement, Carlo Petrini remarked that the local economy “is in perfect harmony with nature. Look! The communities are primarily a place, a place and a people: the people of a certain place and their local economy are extraordinarily compatible with a philosophy of sustainable development.”

Vandana Shiva
, the outspoken activist for the virtues of local production and slow food, took the communitarian rhetoric to new heights when, describing the 2004 Terra Madre gathering in Italy, she recalled, “Despite the diversity and differences, everyone was connected: connected through the earth, our Mother, Terra Madre; connected through food, the very web of life; connected through our common humanity, which makes the peasant the equal of a prince.”

Whew. Even if it does call for a deep breath, the ring of empowerment here is admirable. But that heroic ring makes me nervous. Given the sanguine extremes to which these opinions stretch, one might understandably wonder if the advocates are trying a bit too hard. At the least, we should (soberly) ask if these earnest communitarian assumptions are in fact grounded in reality. Does a local food system truly enhance the integrity of a community, much less make the peasant the equal of a prince and eliminate greed?

Some academic critics are starting to wonder. Writing in the Journal of Rural Studies, sociologist C. Clare Hinrichs warns that “[m]aking ‘local’ a proxy for the ‘good’ and ‘global’ a proxy for the bad may overstate the value in proximity.” Building on this suspicion, she acknowledges that many small farms are indeed more sustainable than larger ones, but then reminds us that “Small scale, ‘local’ farmers are not inherently better environmental stewards.”

Personal experience certainly confirms my own inability to make such a distinction. Most of us must admit that in many cases we really haven’t a clue if the local farmers we support run sustainable systems. The possibility that, as Hinrichs writes, they “may lack the awareness or means to follow more sustainable production practices” suggests that the mythical sense of community (which depends on the expectation of sound agricultural practices) is being eroded. After all, if the unifying glue of sustainability turns out to have cracks, so then does the communal cohesiveness that’s supposed to evolve from it.

And this is not a big “If.” “[W]hile affect, trust, and regard can flourish under conditions of spatial proximity,” concludes Hinrichs, “this is not automatically or necessarily the case.” At the least, those of us who value our local food systems should probably take the time to tone down the Quixotic rhetoric and ask questions that make our farmer friends a little uncomfortable.


Let the farmers' market tomatoes fight it out with the supermarket tomatoes, and may the best tomatoes win!


"Most of us must admit that in many cases we really haven't a clue if the local farmers we support run sustainable systems."

But that's a point of eating/buying local. You can find out. If I want to know if a small farmer up the street is feeding his cows beef, I can stop in and say hello, ask and verify to a degree.

If I want to know if Tyson is, I may have to get on a plane to Uruguay to find out. (Even if it was closer, they'd never let anyone see their facilities for fear of "contamination" anyway.)

Plus, any problems I have with a given local seller of any kind a boycott would go much further with than a giant multinational that could care less about what I think. (See churn rates with cellular carriers.)

Robot Mistake

Where is your reverence for the Jeffersonian Dream of a nation of Yeomen Farmers?

I thought only communists believed in centralized control of industry.

I like to think of the Farmers Markets as the labratories agriculture. Each one experimenting and innovating so that the best practices can rise to the top and create a better system for all of us.

Kitt Hirasaki

In addition to my garden, I have also fired up a personal iron foundry in my backyard in order to reduce the carbon emissions resulting from shipping steel from South Korea.


I'm not afraid of changing people's minds about preferring local or fresh food.
I am afraid of changing laws to give preferential treatment to local growers.


Another strange post - everyone who knows V. Shiva and her work is aware of her very spiritual approach to earth and environment - poking fun at that shows cultural ignorance (mixed with a good dose of ethnocentrism) more than making any point:

And about awareness on actual sustainability: The Slow Food Associations I know regularly organize trips to local farms. Many of the farmers selling on farmers markets have some type of "open farm day" at least once a year.
And in many cases the farmers are actually selling the produce themselves, in which case you can ask them questions and find out about their knowledge of sustainability.

So far, both of your posts draw on a strange, strawman vision of proponents of local and/or organic food. I don't quite get what your point is.


Sebastian: Don't be absurd. Ms. Shiva's spritualism and dedication to the earth and environment do not give her immunity to criticism! Don't let your admiration for someone cloud your reason.

It's not like she's the Berlusconi of the environmental movement, is she? ;)


Listen, people! Incentives! If we keep listening to economists who make anecdotal, straw man arguments, they will continue to make them! Even when those arguments are in line with what you want to believe. You're creating moral hazard!


or.... you can do like many other people and get your food at the farm... i got a couple farms just blocks from my workplace... i can see everything at the farm and get to know the farmer's whole family


I go to the farmers market because I like the choices and often the quality. Everyone likes to use farmers' market tomatoes versus supermarket tomatoes example because the supermarket always loses. True, but lets be honest, my supermarket provides some very good produce at good prices...some even better than at the farmers' market. This is why I only buy about half (or less) of my produce at the farmers' market. And because I have to drive to the farmers' market, the extra trip is creating more carbon than is ever saved by "buying local". If you think I am going to stop going to the supermarket you can forget it, I kinda like the place actually. Community at the farmers' market? You got to be kidding...even though I grew up in farm country I admit I have little in common with the farmers, although I like to chat...the other urbanites that go there and try to make it into a community are kidding themselves even if it gives them the warm fuzzies because they are saving the planet...right. I will admit, it is very nice to have the luxury to worry about these things and not about whether I have enough calories for my children on a daily basis. If I had that worry I would worry less about farmers' market versus supermarket.


John Pandol

We experimented with the farmers market. We sold for retail instead of wholesale(about 3 times farmgate). After 7 weeks of leasing a one ton pickup, hiring 2 college kids to drive to sell 200 to 400 lbs of grapes in a subsidized retail space - we quit. Nice to have some cash the IRS and the old lady don't know about but not worth the time and trouble. The consumer gets produce which has not been in a proper cold chain and can only shop 3 hours twice a week. Sounds like the Soviet Union, huh? Farmers' coop green grocers set up in strip malls and open reasonable business hours might be a better approach, from food safety, logistic efficientcy and consumer convenience.


The writer makes a good point. Having worked in agriculture and servicing farmers who were organic and those who were not, in my experience, the farmers who were "organic" were often the farms you'd be afraid to step foot on. Pristine pastures as you would visualize was often not the case.

When people go to the farmers market, I seldomly see anyone asking the "farmers" how the meat was raised, what was the animal fed, what was the protein and carbohydrate balance of the diet the animal ate. What types of minerals were fed to the animal, how many acres of pasture per animal did the animal have when grazing, how many hours per day was the animal allowed to graze, how recently was the animal butchered, was the meat frozen, if so when and how?

Many of these questions will have significant impact on the quality of the meat, the health of the animal, and the level of how "organic" the product is. But instead, 90% of the people simply buy and go home dreaming wonderful things of how they are helping the world with the belief their food is organic and that it does taste better. When truly, chances are it's less organic and less healthy than the farmers selling to walmart.



Is the sense of community being created because we have a niche consumer market that is being serviced at 4,000 locations in the U.S.?

According to the BLS in 2006, the US had over 47k grocery stores not including convience stores, club stores, superstores, farmers markets, or restaurants. http://www.bls.gov/oco/cg/cgs024.htm

Only a small portion of our population gets its food this way. I think we will find substainability and community would serious errode if we tried to feed everyone this way. Things might even end up worse than our current situation.


I usually limit my food choices to what's available in my local supermarkets - for very good reasons.

If these supermarkets decide to stock local produce, I can compare prices and quality without making a special trip to some other non-super market. (If they don't tell me whats local versus whats not - it may be better since its a form of a blind preference test). If they don't stock local produce, there is probably a very good reason for it and its none of my business why they might not.

The local supermarkets do a very good job of offering the best products at the best prices. So good, that I rarely feel the need to go elsewhere.

If everyone who walked into a supermarket asked the grocer about sustainability or how the corn is this week, I'm not sure the prices would be so low for too long. Of course the grocer would mostly answer frequently asked questions on a website or on in-store materials so that it won't have to answer the same questions over and over while the local farmer might need to have nice ten minute conversations with his neighbors to make a sale. Of course this doesn't mean that the local farmer isn't pulling the wool over our eyes just like a local plumber or other local merchant might be.


caroline freist

it isn't about the food or the local delivery system, it is about wealth - retaining and returning it into the community.


The incentive to buy local is that the food tastes better. A tomato plucked from the plant today, or yesterday at the peak of ripeness is going to taste a whole lot better than one pulled from the plant when it was still green, gassed with lord knows what and allowed to ripen in transport.

As far as I can tell there is no economic incentive for me since the small local farmer charges more for his stuff than the mega mart does. Scales of production and all of that kind of stuff...

So in the end it comes down to the quality of the product. Even better is the produce I grow myself. What is better than that?


Look Sebastian, all James is saying in this post is that the local food movement generally thinks locally grown food is better than globally grown food - either from an environmental or quality standpoint.

James is saying that this may or may not be the case.


I, for one, am fully aware that organic food might not be best for the earth and that local agriculture may not have the lowest carbon footprint.

Nonetheless, I love walking to my local farmer's market and getting fresh produce. I always will. The experience in itself is an order of magnitude more enjoyable than shopping at the supermarket.

John Blackburn

I have not read Professor McWilliams's book, Just Food, but I am eager to get my hands on it, if only to confirm my sense from these two pieces that he is cherry-picking overstated claims by some to cast the entire Local Foods Movement as some kind of deluded cult.

The proliferation of local Farmer's Markets and the increased awareness of the importance of food and how it is grown, processed, and delivered to you have been transformational for so many farmers and consumers, and I believe the value of the movement ought to be judged not simply on macroeconomic or rhetorical grounds.

The value of eating delicious, wholesome food from a grower who is a friend and a member of one's cultural and economic community is perhaps something the pseudo-science of economics will never be able to quantify or fully understand.


Hinrich also says, "sometimes what producers are selling to consumers at farmers' markets is, in part, the aura of personal relations and social connection." She goes on to say that personal connection and trust become some of the "value-added" in the experience.

The magic connection you're feeling might simply be the work of a good salesman?