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.