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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.