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?
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.