10 Thoughts About Farmers Markets (A Rebuttal)

It doesn’t happen too often, but after reading 10 Things Your Farmer’s Market Won’t Tell You, an article by Kelly Barron in SmartMoney Magazine, my blood pressure (normally low) spiked.  I admit I’m probably being overprotective of farmers.  I can’t help it.  They are already up against so much that I feel compelled to come to their defense whenever I see them being unfairly represented.

Without any introduction (other than the title of her article), Ms. Barron launched into a series of often unfriendly comments regarding farmers and farmer’s markets.  Using Ms. Barron’s Top 10 list as a basis, here is another perspective on farmers markets as they relate to our vast food retail options.

1. “You may not shop here, but your tax dollars support our market.”

While no jabs were made here, it is important to get some perspective.  The local tax impact of 3,700 farmers markets, representing less than two percent of all food retail outlets in the U.S., and a significantly smaller percentage of food sales, is nearly insignificant when compared to the amount of local money exported to the national headquarters of large supermarkets.

With federal regulations making local food system infrastructures difficult to not viable, e.g., slaughter houses, and federal subsidies continuing to favor large-scale monoculture crops, a lot of work, and even more luck, is needed before local food sales will begin to truly benefit local economies.  Thankfully, a lot of really smart and inspired people are working hard every day to make that happen.

2. “Our produce is a mite pricey.”

Small farms, representing a critical component in developing sustainable food systems, often choose direct-to-consumer sales because the better-than-wholesale margins they receive can represent the difference between financial viability and getting out of farming.  It is clearly a lot of additional, off-farm work, although less than running a community supported agriculture (CSA) program, which should tell you how valuable it is to recapture margin dollars.  Still, they don’t have the volume, government subsidies, or infrastructre to compete against multi-national corporations on price.  But they do sell a premium product in terms of its nutritional quality, taste and sustainable, and it deserves a fair price.

What’s more, if we follow the advice of Michael Pollan, Marion Nestle and Mark Bittman, who in different ways suggest eating less and proportionately more fruits and vegetables, we will likely end up spending about the same amount we do on the higher calorie, highly processed diet that is today’s standard.

3. “These ‘local’ tomatoes have more SkyMiles than Derek Jeter.”

Did the spokesperson for the Arizona Department of Agriculture have anything nice to say about farmers and farmers markets?  Citing third-hand stories about dishonest farmers sounds just about right for mainstream media.  After all, what could be better than a sensational story about the greedy farmer taking advantage of unknowing customers?  There is no way that this is representative of the vast majority of farmers that sell their wholesome, locally-grown products to happy customers.

Perhaps Ms. Barron should do her next piece on companies that own and operate multiple farmers markets.  Better yet, go after the industrial food companies selling “edible foodlike substances” and calling them food.  There’s a story for you.

4. “You don’t know from ripe fruit.”

Supermarkets are expert in getting consumers to view food as something to look at, admiring perfect shapes, sizes and colors.  The alternative, real food, is grown, harvested, and transported sustainably to maximize taste and nutritional content.  Unfortunately, consumers have traded in their taste buds for visual appeal, but I am confident that one (blind) taste test is all it will take to reconsider their decision.  Farmers markets are a great place to learn about what is important about food and how its grown, while exploring and reorienting our food senses.

5. “A little dirt on our carrots doesn’t mean they’re organic.”

My bet is that once “organic” became a federally regulated label requiring time and money to secure, many existing organic farmers likely opted to do without.  Should this be a surprise?

Farmers are not typically cash rich, and they definitely don’t have a lot of time for paperwork, except perhaps during the winter months, so why deal with one more bureaucratic system.  In addition, most family farms know the importance of sustainable farming (no chemicals), since their livelihood, as well as future generations, relies on maintaining healthy soil.  Using fertilizers, pesticides and GM (or GE) seeds has never been part of the process, but they are now being asked to pay to tell people that.

What would you do?

6. “Our crowds are worse than Monday morning rush hour.”

Despite mentioning that “many” farmers markets are a place where you can take a “stroll in the sunshine and leisurely chat with farmers,” Ms. Barron chooses to focus on the craziness of the Union Square farmers market in NYC.  How many places across the country resemble this location?  My guess is that nearly all of the 3,700 farmers markets in the U.S. are still community gatherings where people “stroll” and “chat.”

If I’m wrong, and there are many farmers markets that have turned into foodie “mosh pits” or worse, then that should tell us all something important – consumers want more locally grown food.   That should motivate all of us to push everyone we can in the food chain, including our elected representatives, to make more available.  Get to work!

7. “These days even supermarkets sell cactus leaves.”

Farmers do sell unique products when compared to nearly any mainstream, conventional supermarket.  They sell fresh, nutritions and tasty fruits and vegetables.

Supermarkets sell produce that is typically harvested early, kept refrigerated for long periods of time, and transported from hundreds to thousands of miles away.  During their time in the “cold chain,” as Marion Nestle refers to it in What to Eat, what started out destined to become, for example, an apple, hits the supermarket shelf as a “perfect” round red ball devoid of much of its nutritional value and flavor.  Definitely not an apple.

So go ahead and buy your cactus leaves at the supermarket, but you won’t find a better tasting, more nutrious one than at the farmers market!

8. “Conversation? Don’t much care for it.”

Have you ever tried talking to a clerk or shelve stocker at a supermarket (other than maybe at Whole Foods)?  I’ll take a grumpy, overworked farmer any day!  Enough said.

9. “Our samples are about as sanitary as a bowl of bar nuts.”

Building on Ms. Barron’s concerns for the cleanliness and safety of samples at farmers markets, I guess we should also eliminate pot lucks, picnics and cocktail parties.  Too many unknown or dirty hands touching our food is to be avoided.  Give me a break.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t be concerned about food safety.  We must.  But from my perspective, we can’t let the significant food safety problems emanating from our industrial food system rule the day at the local level.  Of course, Ms. Barron’s reason for concern, i.e., many hands touching the food, is exactly the problem our industrial food system is having such a hard time dealing with.  Just consider how difficult it has been to track down where all the peanuts ended up in the latest salmonila outbreak.

10. “Fresh? Absolutely. Clean? Not even close.”

I wonder if Ms. Barron gardens.  In my family’s garden, as well as among the wild blackberries, raspberries and alpine berries (“fairy berries” as my four year old likes to call them) growing around our property, we pick and eat right from the plant.  We don’t use fertilizers or pesticides, so what should we be concerned about?  Most sustainable or organic small and family farms follow similar strategies in producing their food, so I ask the same question.  What are you concerned about?

It seems time for us to formally declare that there are two food systems in America.  The first, which is better known because of its size and influence, is the industrial food system dominated by commodity crops serving as raw materials for processed foods, large-scale food crops and livestock grown on thousands of acres, and highly processed foods coming out the other end.  It is also dominated by increasingly large conventional foot retailers, e.g., Wal-Mart, Safeway, Albertson. Then there are the many diverse regional food systems, which barely show up on radar in terms of food sales and volumes.

I have highlighted a handful of differences in this post, but there are many more.  One thing I hope we can agree on is that from writing about to regulating food, we must stop confusing the two.  With that in mind, perhaps Ms. Barron can leverage her considerable investigative skills and dig into the larger food system that is making us less healthy, making corporations more profitable, and destroying one ecosystem after another.  That is an article that needs to be written and published over and over until people truly understand the differences.

Rob Smart is a food entrepreneur focusing on regional food systems and consumer retail experiences. He blogs on alternative food systems at Every Kitchen Table and Civil Eats (guest blogger), and micro-blogs on Twitter asJambutter.

22 responses to “10 Thoughts About Farmers Markets (A Rebuttal)

  1. I suppose that this article is a good thing. It says that farmer’s markets are becoming important enough for the naysayers to take notice. The article is just so stupid I hardly know where to start (though I’m glad you did, Rob). Don’t have time to say much more than this; wish I did!

    • Unfortunately, the Wall Street Journal and its tentacles (including SmartMoney) have been increasing their attacks on local and regional food. The responsible journalist would do more homework, look for the real and factual story, and report the news. That isn’t happening in cases like the “10 Things” SmartMoney article. If they’re looking for a fight, they just found one!

  2. Oh wow. I didn’t read the original article, but just reading these headlines made my blood boil!

    Glad you’re fighting back.

    Cheers,
    KristenM
    (AKA FoodRenegade)

  3. Rob,

    I’m torn here. Part of me feels that sharing the WSJ article and its ridiculous point of view simply helps them get their word out. Maybe if we don’t give them our attention, their 5 minutes will only last 1 or 2. The other part of me is glad you responded, and I certainly agree with the points you make.

    Very often, people CHOOSE not to learn about a topic they know will make them uncomfortable, something that will force them to rethink a part of their lives. “If I read about fast food,” goes the thinking, “then I won’t enjoy it anymore.” Of course, books, shows, blogs, etc. that inspire these kinds of feelings are EXACTLY the ones we need to pay attention to. You’re right about there being 2 food systems.

    I defy anyone to read the books and authors you reference and not be grateful for the understanding and richness it brings to our lives.

    Thanks for a good post,
    Lee

  4. While I agree completely with your comments about the article, and think this is a well written rebuttal, lets be sure we understand what the whole “10 things…” series is about. Smartmoney routinely runs these articles on everything from brokers to farmers… and they ALWAYS are the provocative, exaggerate the negative type of piece like this. The articles are ALL clearly designed to provoke publicity, not to provide an unbiased discourse on any subject. My suggestion is… just don’t buy Smartmoney, and send them a note to tell them you aren’t buying the magazine precisely because of the inflammatory nature of the articles.

  5. Well said!! I wholeheartedly support our farmers market here in Olympia WA. It is the (hands down) best product and seafood I can get anywhere and I will pay a little more (it is really not that much more than the grocery stores and tastes a whole lot better) to get my food fresh and support the local economy. I read that article by Ms. Barron, and she is way way off base, probably having never shopped a farmer’s market. Our market here is busy, but not overly busy and most of the farmers we come into contact with are so nice and very chatty. I just wanted to tell you that your article was awesome in rebuttal to what she said. I applaud you!

  6. Girl Gone Domestic

    Great rebuttal post! In regards to #6, I live in the Seattle area where Pike Place Market is a huge tourist attraction, and yes, extremely crowded! But when I think farmer’s market, I do not think “Pike Place Market”, I think the small U District farmer’s market, or the small Fremont farmer’s market, never crowds. I think Ms. Barron needs to shop around first before throwing out such claims!

  7. Great post, Rob. I can’t figure out what audience actually thinks her opinions make any sense whatsoever.

  8. I think I love you.

    Thank you for writing this.

    Me: secretary on the board of directors for the Friends of the UCSC Farm & Garden, and a very non-monogamous distributor of personal income to every farmers market I can visit. Luckily, I know how to filter truth, and I know who to trust.

    It is an unfortunate fact that some farmers markets have purveyors who merely shovel produce onto, and off of, their trucks, with no connection whatsoever to the soil.

    But Ms. Barron needs to go to a farmers market with ME, and learn the right questions to ask. And the right answers, and wrong ones that alert the bullshit detectors. I am sad that a reporter is allowed such rampant skepticism at a time when food safety is so critical.

    Come to think of it, I might write my own rebuttal. I shall try to refrain from “nana-nana-boo-boo.”

    Cheers, dears.

    P.S. please visit http://www.growafarmer.org for some delicious information about the UCSC Farm & Garden apprenticeship housing project fundraiser: see if there is someone in your neck of the woods with an event. No spam, honest: if you love farms, you will love that site.

    XOX from Santa Cruz

  9. The Farmer market is about the Food, not a nice stroll in the the park. I have been to Union Square Farmer’s Market at 6 a.m. It’s a great time to talk and stroll…WE are there to buy the Food, take a stroll on a different block and get out of my way to buy! All markets need a crowd!

  10. Sigh. I get the idea that some people feel patronized and condescended to – and surely some of us could learn how to reach out more smartly, more broadly – but the growing “don’t-tell-me-how-to-eat” chorus is getting sillier as it gets louder. BTW wingnuts, this is not going to be your vote-winning culture-war issue anytime soon. We elected Obama even though he dared to know what arugula is.

    But Rob, you didn’t even talk about how Barron’s article was set up as an annoying page-view (factory) farm!

    Cheers,
    Francis.

  11. Uh, this may be a dumb question, but I live in AZ and have never seen a cactus with leaves. I don’t cook with them, so I don’t know…

    ?????

    Good piece tho. I’ll hafta check with my locals and see if we can pin down what the AZ ag guy said…

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  13. Bravo… Your response is right on the mark! Especially #5. Thank you for taking on mainstream media and Ms. Barron. Shame on them for such a misleading article of such importance.

  14. I couldn’t agree with this more, especially after getting to know a lot of farmers personally while researching a book. I now reserve a special place in hell for wealthy NYkers who complain about the price of produce at farmers’ markets….Great blog–will try to link to you soon!

    http://www.eatingforbeginners.com

    • Thanks “Eating for Beginners” for the comment and the possibility of linking to my blog. I will be sure to check out your blog, as well. Cheers, Rob Smart

  15. Great post, Rob,

    It’s a great rebuttal to an original article that isn’t worth its digital footprint (I hope it doesn’t have hardcopy).

  16. Anthony Boutard

    Rob,

    Thanks for posting such a good response. The opinion piece by Barron was carefully crafted to reinforce the reluctance and preconceptions many people have about farmers’ markets. Cute, snarky anecdotes are provided in the place of facts. It is directed at people who don’t go to farmers’ markets. As a market farmer, I want to add a couple of observations.

    Regarding pricing, the farmers’ market is a fully competitive market, Adam Smith’s ideal. For the most part, our prices track those of local grocery stores, or are lower. We have a four hour window to sell, and we don’t want to return home with any fruits or vegetables to compost. For almost every product we sell at the market, there are between 5 and 20 other vendors that are offering a similar product. High prices at farmers’ markets is just a myth Barron is trying to reinforce.

    On food safety, Barron is again sowing seeds of doubt without supporting information. There have been no food borne illness outbreaks associated with farmers’ markets. Zip, none, nada. So, Barron slides in the case the case of a petting zoo at a country fair, which had nothing to do with food.

    Every farmer I know takes food safety very seriously. We see our customers every week and we rely on return business. And we eat the food ourselves.

    Barron praises third-party audits without mention of the fact that the Georgia peanut plant involved in the Salmonella outbreak received high praise from such an auditor. “Food safety” is a growth industry, and people are exploiting our fears to make a quick buck. Farms such as ours have first-party audits. Our customers are welcome to see how their food is grown, and visit the farm regularly.

    Thanks again,

    Anthony Boutard, Ayers Creek Farm

    • Anthony, thanks for the fantastic comment. Any interest in putting together a variation of this as a blog post? I would be happy to give you a “guest blogger” spotlight at Every Kitchen Table! Cheers, Rob

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  19. Thanks for tweeting about this post of yours — I’ve only recently discovered your blog, so I’m glad you’re still pointing out these “oldies but goodies” of yours. Great reading. 🙂

    I’ve been wanting to blog about the issues swirling around #5 over at Fair Food Fight for a while. I think it’s a VERY tough one. With almost 20 years of retail natural foods experience, I’m a strong believer in organic certification for consumer protection. Good standards and meaningful inspections built the organic movement and, I would argue, the current green/sustainable foods push as well. If shoppers don’t believe that what they’re buying is what the farmers say it is, it’ll be impossible to create an alternative sustainable food system.

    Then along comes Michael Pollan telling everyone to shop at farmers markets. Superb. It HAD to happen. And I like the ethic of “know your farmer.” Talk to them. Find how farmers farm for yourself. That’s gorgeous, and I love it.

    The problem is that human beings lie. Yep, even *gasp!* farmers. I’ve been in charge of organic integrity at a premiere natural foods store, and I’ve had farmers lie to my face about how their product is grown, what chems they use. A visit out to their farm and a few other questions busted their bubbles. Very, VERY few do this. It’s not a trend BY ANY MEANS. But it happens, once in a blue moon. And it’s why I think organic certification is essential.

    I also know that the claim that organic certification is too expensive is almost always crap. Certification is less expensive than most farmers realize. And with organic cost share programs in place (state depts of ag reimburse farmers the entire cost of certification) organic certification is virtually expese-free. Most farmers are simply not committed to organic certification, don’t want inspectors nosing around their farms, don’t want to commit to an ideal, don’t like the paper work, etc, and that’s fine. But it’s an entirely different argument as to why one is not certified.

    So this leaves farmers market shoppers with the age-old question, “How do I know it’s organic?” ESPECIALLY if it’s not certified.

    Ultimately, I think we almost have to let question go and not worry about certification. If you NEED clean food, and you have to be guaranteed that it’s chem free due to health issues, I say buy organic wherever it comes from and ditch the local thing. If you’re more interested in supporting the local economy, then don’t worry about how clean it is and just buy it local.

    There are alternate ecolabels out there for food, particularly a couple that one sees at farmers markets regularly, but they’re total nonsense. Those labels are just marketing ploys and absolutely nothing more. I’m doing research into one that we see in local markets, and I’ll report on it at Fair Food Fight. But until a reputable system comes along that assures customers, organic is the best, and face-to-face conversation is never to be underestimated.

    But the buyer should ALWAYS beware.

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