Farmers’ markets: A history
Farmers’ markets are often praised as the solution to many of our nation’s food problems. “Farmers markets are an integral part of the urban/farm linkage and have continued to rise in popularity, mostly due to the growing consumer interest in obtaining fresh products directly from the farm” (Farmers Markets, 2012, USDA). Farmers’ markets are defined as places were farmers can sell products directly to consumers. The products are believed to be more likely to be locally grown and the food sold there is viewed as having a lower carbon footprint regarding transportation. According to the USDA: “farmers markets allow consumers to have access to locally grown, farm fresh produce, enables farmers the opportunity to develop a personal relationship with their customers, and cultivate consumer loyalty with the farmers who grows the produce” (Farmers Markets, 2012, USDA). In an age in which so many people feel disconnected from the land and have no control over their food supply, the idea of being able to talk to the people who grew the products while touching and smelling it before they purchase it is profoundly attractive. Many farmers’ markets also offer home-baked pies, preserves and other items that have long left the industrialized kitchens most people call home.
Consumers who enjoy farmers’ markets have a more visceral experience of how crops are grown or how animals are raised so they can satisfy their concerns about the products’ sustainability and health: whether it is organic, small-scale, free of genetically-modified organisms, and humanely-raised. “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” beyond that of impersonal supermarket shopping (McWilliams 2009).
For many consumers, the bonds forged at farmers’ markets are a more effective and reassuring relationship than simply reading a label which may contain vague phrases like ‘cage-free’ or ‘vegetarian-raised.’ Even commercial products which meet USDA standards of being organically raised may not necessarily be environmentally-friendly, in terms of the resources demanded to bring the product to the buyer’s table. Farmers’ markets offer the image of a more communal, local, and traditional connection between the consumer and the land. Once upon a time, there were no specific ‘farmers’ markets.’ Roadside stands were the predominant means by which people were able to obtain crops that they did not grow themselves. “In colonial America…all markets were initially driven by face-to-face interaction” (McWilliams 2009). “When supermarkets rolled around in the late 1930s, they offered a respite from confrontational direct interaction with pushcart vendors and hucksters who could cheat or discriminate against outsiders” (Smith 2012). For decades, the variety of imported goods in American supermarkets was a source of pride; farmers’ markets turn this concept on its head. Often, products are limited based upon seasonal availability. There are no tomatoes in winter; no cauliflower in summer.
Farmers’ markets have exponentially increased in number, paralleled with the growing concern over the health and viability of the industrialized food system. Food health scares regarding products as diverse as hamburger meat, spinach, and peanut butter have caused many consumers to seek out their local farmers’ markets and driven their growth. “As of mid-2011, there were 7,175 farmers markets operating throughout the U.S. This is a 17% increase from 2010” (Farmers Markets, 2012, USDA). However, not all areas have equal access to farmers’ markets. “Farmers markets tend to be most heavily concentrated along the perimeter of the continental United States — areas that also correspond with the highest concentration of vegetable acreage harvested for fresh market sales” (Jekanowski 2012). In areas with farmers’ markets, the markets are becoming increasingly institutionalized, permanent parts of the areas where they are located. “Farmers markets are evolving. They are moving away from seasonal, parking lot produce stands and becoming year-round, self-sustaining, community hubs” (Delgado 2012). Many of these markets are now located in permanent, warehouse-like structures.
Not all individuals are enthusiastic about farmers’ markets. They note that ‘eating local’ does not necessarily mean eating in a manner that is better for the environment. According to historian James T. McWilliams: “lamb raised on New Zealand’s clover-choked pastures and shipped 11,000 miles by boat to Britain produced 1,520 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions per ton while British lamb produced 6,280 pounds of carbon dioxide per ton, in part because poorer British pastures force farmers to use feed. In other words, it is four times more energy-efficient for Londoners to buy lamb imported from the other side of the world than to buy it from a producer in their backyard. Similar figures were found for dairy products and fruit” (McWilliams 2007). Many other factors contribute to the extent to which a product has a positive or negative impact upon the environment. Supermarkets, despite the extent to which they have been demonized by the locovore movement “make excellent use of centralized distribution points and other efficiencies of scale” (Smith 2012). Allowing consumers to do ‘one stop shopping,’ for example, can actually result in a reduced carbon footprint, more so than having a consumer stop at one farmers’ market for vegetables and then heading back to town to do his or her shopping for other goods at a ‘big box store.’
Furthermore, “it is impossible for most of the world to feed itself a diverse and healthy diet through exclusively local food production — food will always have to travel” (McWilliams 2007). The fact that farmers’ markets tend to be most enthusiastically attended in areas of the country like California which are temperate and uniquely suited to growing is not an accident, but is rooted in the fact that it is feasible for things to be grown locally in that area — but not nearly as feasible for individuals living in other areas of the country to rely upon locally-grown items.
Critics stress that while people may enjoy the entertainment aspect of shopping for their food, farmers’ markets are not the only solution, as pleasant as they may seem, to the problem of offering an ethical and reliable source of nutritious food to the nation. There are no guarantees at farmers’ markets that the products offered are truly local and ethically raised. “Now authorities are questioning whether they’re missing a crucial ingredient: real farmers…. In Tomah, where a farmers market has operated for the past decade in a grassy downtown park, a nasty dispute has cropped up. Local farmer Ronald Waege, who grows his own apples and blueberries just outside of town, says resellers are buying up produce at an auction and peddling it here, sometimes undercutting his own prices” (Etter 2010). Waege has demanded that a law be passed prohibiting reselling at the market, angering other farmers. Only 63% of farmers’ markets require that “vendors can sell only products they produced themselves” (Etter 2010). And even then, enforcement of this mandate is virtually impossible. Although consumers worry about the labeling of conventional commercial products, the source of items at a farmer’s market can be even more in doubt, given the lack of regulatory oversight.
Even farmers are becoming less enthusiastic about the proliferation of farmers’ markets. The exponential growth of the markets has diluted the customer base. “Farmers say they must add markets to their weekly rotation to earn the same money they did a few years ago, reducing their time in the field and adding employee hours. Add to this general competition, inflated fuel prices, and the sizable commitment of time and energy required to run a successful farmers market stand, and the whole endeavor becomes an exercise in diminishing returns for some farmers” (Steinman 2011). The potential for small markets to dilute profits and customer bases once again underlines the benefits of having a centralized location for…