Why Farmers Markets and CSAs Aren’t Enough

Farmers Markets are great, and so are CSAs. They are an easy entry for many into the local food scene – building connections and personal relationships between consumers and producers. They help farmers get seed money and smooth out income. They help consumers feel vested in local farms. They put faces and handshakes into grocery shopping.

But they aren’t enough to build local food resiliency. They aren’t helping make prices for local food affordable for more than just the upper class. And they don’t favor small farmers.

In fact, farmers markets favor large farms – the ones who can afford to take an entire day (or five) to pack up a truck and sit at the market for the day. Think about it – if a farmer is at the market for three or four days a week when is he farming? He’s either paying someone to farm for him, or paying someone to market for him. He can’t be doing both. He’s taking a huge risk harvesting produce for the market because if it doesn’t all sell it’s going to perish by day’s end. Farmer’s markets also favor those farmers with huge amounts of each item. If you have a truly small, biodiverse farm you may have just a small amount of many things ripe at once. So although you are more likely to be protecting your topsoil, you have less opportunity to market yourself. This is one of a bazillion reasons small farmers struggle so much.

Farmers markets also seem to cater mainly to the elite. This makes sense from a business standpoint and you can’t fault the market coordinators for needing to ensure that markets are profitable and those participating farmers are doing well. But farmers markets are predominantly located in wealthy neighborhoods and the only way to get them into “food deserts” is by legislation or non-profit organizations. Frequently this is a subsidized public policy that increases the tax base. And that’s not going to help keep long term costs down for anyone. Honestly, even though you can sometimes use WIC and food stamps at farmers markets how often are you going to buy eggs that cost $7 a dozen or bacon that is $10 a pound? If I had sticker shock going from PCC to farmers markets, I can only begin to imagine how disillusioned someone living below poverty level must feel.

So what do we do?

I believe we do what we did until the advent of the mega farm and it’s cousin, the super market. We get back to our roots. We don’t rely on brick and mortar stores or permanent farmers markets or public policy. We create ad hoc markets, connecting farmers and consumers directly. Do you have a question about how your food was grown (and you should!)? Then ask the farmer. You’ll be seeing her when you pick up your food, or when she delivers it to you. You’ll have an email address to direct queries to.

Want to know about farm inputs, or crop rotations, how frequently petroleum based machinery is used, what type of pest management strategy and how often things are applied (because not even organic sprays are no-impact and everything is related), how they are protecting native habitat, source of seeds and irrigation practices? How are they protecting their topsoil? Did you know that for every pound of vegetable farmed two to six pounds of topsoil are lost and that’s where your nutrition is coming from? You can only do this if you have direct contact with your farmer.

But one person shopping from a farmer isn’t enough to get the price down, nor is it enough to really give that farmer any degree of economic certainty. That’s where CSAs are nice for farmers but they usually require an employee or volunteers to manage the program. And personally they just don’t work for me. Right now I’m enrolled in a wonderful CSA because I didn’t get the garden in soon enough at this new house. Last week in my CSA box I got a dozen eggs (I have 20 some poultry laying eggs here already), leeks, potatoes, storing squash, apples, pears (remember that huge buy I just did a few weeks back? I have hundreds of pounds of those things here already) and no kale. Quite honestly right now the only thing I want is kale and cabbage. This is an extreme circumstance but in the past I’ve gotten things like weeks of radishes, or one lone artichoke to split between my entire family. So you can see they don’t work for me. Maybe they work for you and if you have asked your farmer all the hard questions, like their answers and the quantities and selection in your CSA box work for you then consider yourself lucky!

So how do farmers find consumers and consumers find farmers?

There are some great websites that can help:
www.EatWild.com
www.LocalDirt.com
www.LocalHarvest.org
www.EatWellGuide.org

In addition farmers can create their own website and have it optimized for search phrases pertinent to their location and offerings. And consumers can email their local agricultural school’s extension program.

Bulk buys are essentially ad hoc farmers markets. Find farmers you want to buy from. Find other consumers so you can band together and make it worth the farmer’s time to do a huge harvest for you. You’ll both reap the financial benefits.

You can set the buy up swap meet-style in a parking lot somewhere, or you can coordinate drops around town. Having consumers commit to amounts and varieties of produce and prepay ahead of time using paypal or check minimizes risk for the farmer. There are several other posts on this blog about bulk food buys if you use the categories or the search bar.

Bulk food buys don’t reduce farmers market or CSA sales – they reduce purchases of conventional or big box organic foods and that’s a good thing.

24 Responses to Why Farmers Markets and CSAs Aren’t Enough

  1. I appreciate your consideration for those of us in the lower income brackets. Purchasing from a farmer’s market or CSA is not an option for people who live paycheck to paycheck. Group buys are intriguing but require too much cash at once. It’s easy to talk about the hidden or long term costs of purchasing food from a big box store, but the opportunity costs for lower income families to buy from more sustainable sources is daunting. We’re left with growing our own. One day the economy will be better and my family will be able to choose where to spend our dollars with less fretting and fewer tears, but there will always be struggling families, and so I hope your vision comes to pass.

    • Annette Cottrell

      Angela, you don’t need to buy more than you are currently buying – you just need to find more of you to split it amongst. I’ve had people get as little as a pound of some things. The key is making the distribution points so prolific it’s worth someone’s time to come get that small quantity, or to set up relays or carpools to distribute it out which we’ve also done in the past. It requires some forethought though, and lots of education. I’m so thankful you are able to grow your own for your family!

  2. I agree with Angela in that getting a bunch of cash up front is very hard for some families and individuals, so bulk shopping is a tough prospect. And Annette I think your experience is basically because of where you live! (And if we lived closer you could have my kale.) I live in a pretty darned poor part of the country, and fortunately our farmers’ markets (which all accept WIC) aren’t located in upper class neighborhoods because frankly there are none. So purchasing food from them is actually a reasonable thing for many people, as are roadside stands, which are wonderfully inexpensive. (Farmer’s markets can be disappointing for people like me who might want more bizarre vegetables though.)

    We have “non brick-and-mortar” food buying co-ops out here, too, so that is another option: they’re basically like your bulk buys, but a bit more organized. You order your food online during a short window of time, and you pick it up on those few days a month that the co-op operates. WIC applies, and you pay at the delivery site. There is a yearly fee. http://www.westmichigancoop.com/ and http://www.purpleporchcoop.com/ are the two closest to where I live.

    I agree though that it requires a different mindset (along with its attendant inconveniences) to avoid the grocery store. Me, I would rather get my hands dirty and grow my own.

    • Annette Cottrell

      El the cash upfront can be just the same amount they are spending now – each individual doesn’t have to buy a ton of things, they just need to find friends, neighbors, churchmembers, etc to split it with to get good pricing. You are lucky in a sense to live in a less developed area. Inside big cities everything is commercialized and locally we have what once was a food buying coop with member benefits turned high end retailer that has expanded now to 7 stores. Unfortunately because they are so big though we have no true food coops. Yet…

      Thank you for posting the link to your local ones – I’ve found a few online that I’ve been checking out because it’s high time we had a shift in thinking around here. And all up and down the west coast where food is way more expensive and farmers are way too few.

  3. I agree with Angela’s insights regarding how families with smaller incomes really haven’t much of a choice as to where or how their dollars are spent.

    I’ve been praying about this for a while now–there has got to be a way to start a revolution within the gardening/farming community to somehow benefit our brothers and sisters that are struggling to put PROPER and TRUE food in the diets of their family? Where they can come and work or shop for the same items that another family may actually be able to the market price for?! Like Bon Jovi’s cafe. :) Couldn’t there be a way that a community of family farms that are lucky enough to have an abundance of space/desire to produce food that would appeal equally to all families of any means help?

    It’s heartbreaking to head to a local grocer and see numerous carts filled to the brim with processed potatoes, noodle dishes spiked with sodium, etc. Knowing families are eating often just a box of these items for dinner each night pains me–i am concerned for their health in later years–and the health of their children. And truly gut-wrenching are the bins for the food banks–whole foods such as a bag of beans or whole grain are a rarity within a bin where sugar free pudding, salt laced ramen, and cake mixes reign.

    I am blessed enough to be a stay at home wife/homeschooling mother, and pray that once we find our way to a small bit of property, somehow the answer is revealed to me. There has to be an answer–a way to get everyone pure and healthy food who wants it, without something as ridiculous as money being a barrier to their health. Once the local movements catch on more, my hope is that this problem will easily solve itself.

    • Annette Cottrell

      There is a small group of us just beginning to research how to turn something like that into a reality, Whit. I have a huge vision – but it requires some start up capital and a part time employee. I’m so excited about it I can’t sleep though!!

      • Oh how exciting, Annette! The anticipation to see this project unfurl along the way may be too much. :) You have created an amazing community here, not only on The Internets, but in Seattle area too!

        One of my hubbie’s coworkers had a wonderfully successful idea where they provided veggie starts to low income individuals. However, it becomes difficult to run something like that unless you are in a position that someone within the family can bring home the health benefits, etc while the others focus on the good they’re doing for others.

        Hopefully you will be able to get some sleep though–it’s going to be an “up-James Street-hill during a Seattle’s Snow-mageddon” battle to get it started. I have more than a sneaking suspicion you are just the gal with the perfect amount of vision and grit to rally the community and a capitalist to accomplish it!

  4. Thought provoking reading. My current grocery budget hovers right at $750 a month.
    http://dogsordollars.com/2011/10/01/750/
    I just paid $80 for my sustainably grown local Thanksgiving Turkey. We shop at the farmers market at least twice a month. I realize I am fortunate to be able to do this, but it is out of control.
    I’m in Seattle, so I take advantage of some bulk buys (beef, pears, apricots), but it’s not a consistent reality. Not for busy, job holding down people. I can’t plan all my food needs that far in advance. I have not seen direct contact with Farmers drive down the price significantly (outside of a bulk buy situation). Currently working on my own food production, because that’s the only real way I see to “save” money.
    There is no good answer here. The cheap food vs. real food price dichotomy is so skewed. Until we can balance it out or balance out expectations, I fear real food will remain inaccessible to most.

    • Wow, that’s incredible. If that dollar amount reflects the cost of buying local, I’m in trouble. Right now we feed our family of four on $120 a month excluding the cost of growing about 70% of fruit & veg we eat. We spent about twice that much when I was teaching.

    • Glad to know we aren’t the only ones with such a high monthly grocery bill in Seattle. We have a family of four. I bake almost everything from scratch, we rarely eat out, and still we are up in the $500-$750 a month range. We buy our meat directly from a farmer at butcher time. I was so frustrated at the cost of Kale and Chard at the U-District Farmers market last weekend I left with only my daughter’s raw milk and ended up at PCC where it was actually cheaper! Weekly Organic CSA costs are just too much for us. I’m ready for Annette’s revolution.

    • Direct contact with the farmers on the bulk buys is driving the price of food down dramatically. We just need to set up a system where they are happening several times a month, and delivered to various parts of town where you can get them close to you on your schedule. So far I’ve been getting them to those who are easiest to sell to, which is not who needs them the most. This needs to be bigger and broader reaching, you are right.

  5. Thanks Angela, Whit. I’m thinking about a microfarming network … something like “I’ll plant a row of lettuce every two weeks for my neighbors, and Sally two doors down is planting carrots, and John the next street over is raising eggs for me” Then the members of the micro-farm network just come to your door and open a cabinet on the porch and exchange eggs/lettuce/carrots. Thinking bigger too.

    • Grace I love that idea. It works great for those DIY’ers out there and solves the problem of light constraints by yard. If you have only part shade then grow the greens or eggs or compost or mushrooms or rabbits. If you have full sun then grow the tomatoes or honey or winter squashes or fruits. Help each other to help ourselves. Can’t wait to hear what you are thinking!

      Larry you are right – I feel like so many people have made huge strides in the last two years and then the economy knocked them back down. We totally need community, and we need to empower ourselves. There are some model Co-ops out there that I hope to write about next week because I feel like they are doing what we need. True co-ops who have not lost sight of their original mission as they have expanded, because of their consumer base and strong goals to keep food affordable. Then the next step will be to see if we have such a strong volunteer base here…

    • I would buy into that system. Our home until two months ago was in the Green River Valley and we could grow anything with little effort. It was wonderful and we were able to maintain a very diverse diet, but our new Arbor Heights yard is going to be more challenging. We only have one bed up and growing and a second hopefully next spring. I forsee significant challenges growing heat loving veg and several years before we can match the number of beds we had last year.

  6. I think the microfarming network might be a good idea as well. The biggest issue is getting people to start caring about what they eat. My wife and I got pretty discouraged initially trying to eat local and healthy on a budget. I started a small raised bed garden 2 years ago and have been increasing it yearly. I think that the answer will definitely be at a community level.

  7. We are expanding our market garden this year to include a CSA delivery/pickup. We are very small, just less than 2 acres and my husband and I do the all the work up until now, with the CSA we are offering work shares to 4 families (out of 25 shares). These shares will be an exchange of there labor for our produce, a few hours a week in exchange for a weekly box meant to feed 4-ish people. There are a LOT of CSA’s who offer similar arrangements, there are also community plots and gardens of all different kinds. There are options, people just need to be motivated to find them. Also,where I live anyway, many mom/pop stores, butchers, ect take food stamps. It is not just the big stores that do. FWIW

    • Christine what you are doing is wonderful! There are some CSA programs here that do work shares as well. There just aren’t enough slots for all those in need, and they are further outside the city which makes them somewhat inaccessible for many in need too. We also have extensive community plots and many do use them. There are waiting lists for them here, although they open up new ones all the time. Those never worked for me with young kids but I know lots of people love them. Best of luck with your garden expansion!

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  9. My wife and I farm full-time for a living, selling mainly through one or two farmers’ markets and a fairly small CSA (going on 8 years.) I feel like you may be shortchanging the CSA model. I continue to value it more and more. The chief problem I see with the bulk buy concept is that what any one consumer is getting from any one farmer doesn’t really amount to enough to justify consumers and farmers building real relationships. And although I do it all the time, the last thing I should be doing is wasting time trying to educate one consumer at a time by e-mail. And the questions rarely come from regular customers but rather from consumers that don’t trust me and are just testing me, wanting to hear a few buzzwords (that they lack the basic understanding of farming to intelligently interpret) yet with a mindset of supermarket prices and convenience. So I think developing relationships is key. Unless the consumers can really invest in specific relationships with farmers, how are the consumers ever going to discern differences between real sustainability and window dressing? How many consumers know the difference between hay and straw or a steer and a cow? As agriculturally illiterate as we are as a nation, there’s no way we’re going to buy from 10 (or 20 or 50) different farmers and exercise the least bit of effectual discernment when it comes to the kinds of good and important questions you asked: petroleum dependency, seed sources, irrigation practices, etc. And apart from such discernment, how are the better farmers ever going to compete with the ones taking the short-cuts? The local food movement would just become a high-priced repeat of all the mistakes we’ve made with mainstream agriculture. So I think there’s a lot of potential good in the CSA model, in consumers investing deeply in a particular farm, in getting to personally know farmers well enough to trust them. I also see a lot of good in consumers choosing to invest in a particular model of farming and then conforming how they eat to that model instead of beginning with their supermarket-bred eating habits and finding the farms that will support those habits. I think that’s a big part of the price problem: if local farms are forced to compete with what’s cheap in supermarkets, then they largely won’t be growing what’s most cost-effective locally. For example, growing apples and peaches where I live typically costs a fortune in organic sprays, but some of my CSA customers grew to love figs and Asian pears this year, things they had never eaten before, but things they quickly learned to love by virtue of the CSA system. I think the CSA model also supports more diversified farming, because then farmers can sell their model of farming (with a whole diversity of products) instead of trying to sell each individual crop. It also helps tremendously in selling locally to small markets (which keeps costs down) to have a guaranteed market for perishable crops. There certainly are details (like portion size and other things you mentioned) that make a big difference in how well a CSA works, but there are way to finesse the details without giving up the basic model of beginning with a unique investment in a particular farm.

  10. Annette Cottrell

    Eric we have been supporting the same core group of farmers for three seasons now and everyone feels like they understand what type of farming they do. Part of that is my communicating which definitely needs to happen, I agree. But I don’t agree that you need to have a personal relationship with every customer in order for them to be able to understand your business practices. That is part of the marketing effort that needs to happen.

    I have quite a few of these farmers who don’t have the amount or want to do the planning that a CSA entails. They are very excited about the new marketing model I am trying to start right now.

    I don’t think we should give up on CSAs at all – they work beautifully for many people for all the reasons you mentioned. I think we need to find a model that educates grocery store shoppers and entices them to shift their buying dollars. And I don’t think that educational outreach should come only from farmers. That is the value I see this new marketing tool will bring – connecting consumers who can’t afford your kind of produce or who don’t understand the importance of it with farmers who are growing it. I want to find those consumers and convert them! They are not the same customer currently buying from you, or necessarily from other local farmers either. I will be able to share more with everyone after the holidays. Right now I’m busy writing the grant that is due next week and then I need to get an url and a host and start creating the shell so I have something to share! Thanks so much for all your thoughtful comments.

  11. Annette, Thanks for the reply. You’ve got me thinking that I overstated my point. And you’ve got me thinking that any bulk buy “program” (for lack of a better word) would at least require that farms be local and would sell direct-market, and those things alone would have to tend to select for at least a slightly better model of farming. I’m also thinking now about Wendell Berry’s call to shorten our supply lines with the ideal of being “fully responsible for… food [by] grow[ing it] for yourself, and… know[ing] all about it… appreciat[ing] it fully, having known it all its life.” So I see a spectrum from global commodities to growing your own, or to put it differently, from zero discrimination between farming practices to full responsibility. I do see a big leap between what can be communicated by a bulk buy coordinator and the level of trust that can come from a face-to-face relationship with the farmer (and face-to-farm knowledge of the farm.) I would also question the need for dealing with multiple farmers, particularly whether farmers weren’t sacrificing diversity — I know you value diversification highly — for the sake of cost-cutting or “labor-saving” machinery (or other form of industrialization) that would require growing a crop on a larger scale. And I would be concerned that the coordinator might give an implicit seal of approval to multiple farms and that the consumers would then, trusting in the black-or-white approval of the coordinator, simply choose between farms on the basis of cost (and/or the cosmetics of the product or other product traits) and cease to discriminate on the basis of ecologically superior farming practices… and that farmers would lose incentives they might otherwise have for going further, being more ecologically responsible, etc. I guess I’m just naturally suspicious of middlemen, although I play the part myself fairly regularly in order to connect my customers with local products I can’t offer them myself, so I obviously see bulk buys as superior to a lot of other options. I just wouldn’t want to see bulk buys leading consumers to forgo a deeper relationship with a particular farm (e.g. a CSA) in order to gain whatever advantages from bulk buys, and whatever the intentions of the coordinator I do see a degree of tension there. I also think CSA’s are especially well suited to serving consumers making that first step out of the supermarket. I think a traditional CSA helps such consumers learn to appreciate the products of local farms (when they might not have chosen to buy them in a more consumer-centric model.) I think it’s also very helpful for consumers to think of a farm as “our farm” (at least for the season), instead of always maintaining that buyer-seller divide and consumer guardedness — I think that way of thinking can really help to develop a consumers understanding of food production.

  12. Annette Cottrell

    Hi Eric,
    I think Seattle is a special market and we and our local small farmers are very blessed for that. Consumer here have a good handle on why organic is better than conventional. They still need a LOT of educating on why big organic is still not good – and in fact perhaps just a wolf in sheep’s clothing. But once someone explains that – they really get it. The consumers I have been working with are gardeners, parents and Weston Price followers so they are highly concerned about what we are doing to the planet and our bodies, and our children’s planet and our children’s bodies. It may not be the same where you are. In fact, it sounds like you are trying to teach, teach, teach most of the time and I know that gets really trying on the nerves (and I’m not even as vested as you are, meaning I’m not trying to make this my livelihood!)
    I think you are right – somehow this mechanism needs to A)communicate and teach so that it’s not just up to each farmer B)ensure that we are rewarding diversity, balance, honesty and stewardship and C)creating a mutually beneficial transactions that both parties feel is fair and rewarding.
    I’m sorry you are too far away to be a part of one of our bulk buys because I think you’ll see that we are valuing each farmer, not just pitting them against each other to get a good price. What I’ve done so far is emailed all the farmers asking what they have, then checked organic grocery store pricing and reported back to all of them and let them set the price for each item. They frequently work together to do that. They know the price needs to be somewhat below Whole foods and the farmers markets but not so low the farmers are not making much money.
    I spend a good deal of time communicating weather conditions, other adversities they may be experiencing, quality of crops and their “story”. I explain what each farmer is doing that is different (ie permaculture, agroforestry, pasturing, etc). In Seattle more people understand that organic standards don’t mean much so it’s important that we question everything.
    Some of these people also get CSA boxes but these bulk buys may be for canning or fermenting or storing things up through the winter. CSAs work great for many but not all, both consumer and farmer. So I’m not advocating we get rid of CSAs. I agree – some people really want to feel vested in the farm. We have a large amazing biodynamic farm 10 minutes from me where I get my CSA box currently. It’s called Jubilee Farm, in Carnation, WA. People flock there by the droves, driving out from the city to help harvest in order to get bigger boxes or just learn more. They were my first CSA eight years ago and I remember that feeling of wanting to belong to a farm, of wanting to help out local farmers. I still feel that way only now it’s even stronger.

    The things we get for the bulk buys are things like boxes of apples or pears, apricots, tomatoes, carrots, beets, winter squashes and potatoes. Not really fresh vegetables because people either get CSA boxes or have gardens for those things but it’s hard to have land for enough tomatoes or potatoes or squashes and apricots don’t do well west of the Cascades.

    I see tomatoes as the perfect example – even if you get a CSA box you won’t get enough tomatoes to can. You’ll go to the store and buy canned tomatoes. By buying cases of them from someone we’ve asked to grow them for us the year before we avoid giving our money to the big food companies.

    I think we both have the same goal in the end – supporting small farmers who are doing the right thing.

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