Apparently, in some parts of the country, farmers markets have expanded so much that they've run out of customers to sell to, and they're finding it hard to command the premium price they'd grown accustomed to. This poses a problem for those of us who would like to see much more of the nation's food grown on small, local farms.
Now, any economist (really, any economist, not just a conservative, farmers-market-hating economist) would start smirking right about now and point out that the solution farmers might come to eventually is the very one they stand against: become more efficient, thereby squeezing out profits even if prices have to come down. If they could figure out a way to accept a lower price, they could expand their market and sell more to restaurants, grocery stores, or local makers of salsa and the like–and then we would all be eating more fresh, locally-grown produce because it would be everywhere: at our local grocery store, on our sandwich at the deli, in the salsa at the Mexican restaurant.
So how would farmers become more efficient? Well, (a group of local farmers sitting around a table might decide) what if we each specialize a bit more? No need for each of us to invest in a hoophouse to grow winter greens. Harry's got more hoophouses than he knows what to do with. Let's let him grow the greens. And Sally has the only decent climate for growing tomatoes in the whole county. What if…
You can see where this is going. Monocultures! Automation! Gah!
Or–what if that same group of growers sits around the table and says, You know, the problem is that we each have to do so many different things in the course of a single week. We have to start new flats of seeds, and transplant, and cultivate and water and harvest, and sort into boxes and make cute signs and load trucks and drive to markets and create lovely displays and bag and weigh and count change and smile and make friends, and do accounting and pay bills and repair fences, and it's all so lovely, but it seems like we never have enough time to really do any one thing well. And some of us really suck at some of that stuff.
So what if we split that up? What if one of us starts all the seeds? What if we all pitch in on one big truck that drives around and picks everything up and takes it to market? What if somebody else stands there around the town square on Saturday morning and sells the strawberries so we can be back here at the farm, doing what needs doing?
You can see where that's going, too. Divisions of labor! Manufacturers, distributors, wholesalers, retailers! An industrialized food system! Nooooooo!
I don't have the answer. Farmers markets, and small local growers, are wonderful in every possible way and I love them. But if small, market farmers can only get by on the "Etsy price" for their food, doesn't that impose some natural limitations? And if getting more efficient requires making unacceptable tradeoffs (such as monoculture)–where does that leave those of us who want to see an ever-expanding share of the nation's food come from small and wonderful farmers?
Discuss.Posted by Amy Stewart on August 31, 2011 at 4:30 am, in the category Eat This, Ministry of Controversy.