Monday, August 9, 2010

Scaling Up Farmers' Markets

On Tuesday, the USDA released one of the more encouraging news items of the week—figures for the growth of farmers’ markets over the past year. Numbers are up 16% from 2009, nationally totaling well over 6,000. In 1994, when the USDA began collecting the data, there were fewer than 1,800. The top ten states are essentially California and various Midwestern and Northeastern states. Encouragingly, a southern state, North Carolina, has cracked the top ten.

One of the main arguments against localism is its cost—critics charge that paying extra for heirloom tomatoes is inherently elitist. These numbers pretty convincingly refute this contention, however, because the recession, if anything, has accelerated the growth of farmers’ markets. Localism has even ignited a small backlash against the USDA organic label, as I chronicled a few months ago. While it is important to understand how corporate agriculture has exploited the USDA label, the fact remains that the pursuit of customers who pay attention to the label encourages far better farming practices than the conventional norm, not to mention educates people, albeit imperfectly, about the source of their food. In any case, small producers rarely compete directly against corporate organic products, and they can easily get around the difficulty of getting certification by marketing themselves as “beyond organic” (or some such variant). Hence the success of farmers’ markets and CSAs, where the playing field is tilted irrevocably against corporate, large-scale operations.

At this point, with the weekly farmers’ market present in most towns of any size, advocates for local food need to consider how to increase the intensity of consumption of local food rather than its range. Either they need to carve out a larger space for themselves within existing chain stores, increase the demand for co-ops and natural food stores, or, in what to me seems the most promising option, increase their operations where they already enjoy an advantage over potential corporate competitors: farmers’ markets. In short, they should work towards sustaining farmers’ markets that open daily. The best local products, fruit and vegetables, are by their nature highly perishable; shopping once a week simply isn’t enough to enjoy summer’s bounty.

The prime difficulty is finding open space that can be dedicated entirely to markets. Parking lots, which seem to be their most common site, can be spared for a day, but city governments and nearby stores will likely balk at reserving them consistently. On the other hand, markets do bring new customers into an area, and the crowds spill over to shop in adjacent stores, so perhaps an economic argument can be persuasive on this point. Certainly, few small farmers can afford to come to market every day—when would they weed and harvest their produce if they did?—but by sharing stalls with similar vendors, they would provide customers with consistency.

The most tempting alternative for small producers who want to scale up may be to make the leap to supply traditional grocery stores, which reach many more consumers than farmers’ markets. However, these outlets need corporate suppliers because they operate on economies of scale. Small producers are much more vulnerable to the vicissitudes of weather and markets and thus should avoid the long-term contracts that chain stores require (cooperatives change the dynamics entirely). Natural food stores are more favorably disposed to local suppliers, but for whatever reason, growth on the scale of farmers’ markets seems to elude them.

Convening daily farmers’ markets will offer benefits beyond simply higher sales volumes and healthier eating. The more time people spend shopping for food, the better. Farmers’ markets encourage casual interaction, whereas at a grocery, one needs only talk to the cashier (automated checkout are becoming more and more common). Like any point of assembly that encourages conversation, whether church, school, or a sports stadium, the marketplace is fundamental to civics.

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