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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.