Monday, August 8, 2011

3 Things Farmers Markets Do Well, and 3 They Don't

I've been working at two different farmers markets this summer, one in Copley Square in downtown Boston, and the other in Medford, a suburb just outside. In a lot of ways these markets have been the perfect summer job: I get to be outside, I get to meet interesting farmers and food entrepreneurs, I get to talk about food all day, and I get to take home A LOT of local organic produce.  During my time at these two markets I've had an opportunity to think about the larger implications of farmers markets. I've come to realize that farmers markets are a dynamic space and do a lot of good, but they shouldn't be the linchpin of a local food or business movement.  Here are my takeaways, starting with what works.

What's Good
A pop-up community space in Medford
1. Enlivening public spaces - At their most basic level, farmers markets are a temporary creative use of a public space.  They provide a festival atmosphere and encourage people to stop and stay a while in an otherwise banal or previously explored place.   The Medford Farmers Market is like a lot of other markets in that it takes place in a parking lot - a place that normally no one would be interested in visiting on its own.  Most market-goers stop to chat with friends and acquaintances they see there, or make small-talk with strangers about tonight's meal plans.  The farmers market builds connections between people by engaging them in this public space, and the community is stronger because of it.

2. New food business incubators - Farmers markets have a very low barrier to entry.  If you make a stellar set of salsas, all you need is a tent, some tables, health permits and the registration fees to start bringing your salsa to market.  You don't need to start a marketing campaign to get your item into the grocery stores, and you don't need to plop down thousands to open up a brick-and-mortar facility of your own.  A handfull of the vendors at the Medford Farmers Market just started business less than a year ago and view the market as a way to sell their product, but also as a way to get the word out and continue to build their brand from there.

Copley Square Farmers Market, photo by Atlas Farm
3. Increasing food literacy - farmers markets are fun in part because there are so many odd vegetables you don't catch at the grocery store.  Kohlrabi! Currants! Pattypan Squash!  These guys have disappeared from shelves in favor of the more standard broccoli, grapes and zucchini, but they are a treat to encounter at markets.  If you don't already know what to do with them, you've got the farmer on hand to answer questions and give tips about how to turn them in to a meal.  Recipe sharing is a big part of farmers markets. Ideas getting sent out through newsletters, websites, painted signs, and between customers.  A fully different form of food literacy is also improved through the very existence of the market in and of itself.  One could consider it a 10,000 sq ft billboard for healthy fruits and vegetables.  Farmers markets are a great reminder that you can still eat healthy and locally, even if you're in a bustling urban center like  downtown Boston.

What's not so good
A farmers market can't compete with this.
image from How Stuff Works.
1. Combatting food insecurity - There is a lot of rhetoric about food deserts lately, and some see farmers markets as a tool to combat them.  Despite the potent vision and good feelings surrounding the idea of a farmers market setting up shop in an underserved community, they aren't enough to fully grapple with the problem.  Markets are open one day a week (two if you're lucky), meaning that unless you do all your shopping then, the rest of the week you're stuck with the regular offerings.  Moreover, imagine an entire neighborhood all shopping at the same place during the same 4 to 6 hour window.  Not going to happen.  Sure, it's a step forward (certainly the additional food literacy helps matters), but other, more consistent healthy food options need to be the main priority.

2. Changing the food economy - Direct to consumer sales get a lot of press for decreasing the number of middlemen between farm and plate and increasing the amount of money that goes directly back to the farmer.  However, in Massachusetts only 8.6% of the $489 million in agricultural sales came from direct to consumer sales (The totals for the whole US are $297 billion in sales, $1.2 billion of which are direct).  One could argue that this means that there should be more market opportunities so that more farms could participate in direct-to-consumer sales, but from an economic standpoint I'm not convinced.  Farmers markets take time away from the farmer to do what they're good at - farming, to spend time doing something that they're not as good at - marketing.  Add that to the amount of time that it takes to set-up and break-down the market each day (3 hours at Copley for only a 7 hour market day), the time it takes to drive from farm to market, and the additional staff hours surrounding the market stand, its easy to conclude that farmers markets aren't a pinnacle of economic efficiency. In terms of promoting local foods, I like Food Hubs a lot better, and to decrease the amount of farm and staff time CSAs are better.  This is all a matter of opinion, of course, and I'd welcome your critique.

3. Diversifying the food movement - I've heard a number of people timidly approach my market stand and mention to their friends that they've avoided farmers markets because they are overwhelming and intimidating.  The rush of people, the unusual atmosphere of the locale and the perception that organic and local food is for white, upper-middle class people, my markets can sometime lack the diversity I'd want to see in a truly thriving communal space.  Some attempts to appeal to more diverse audiences have been made, such as making traditional crops like calalloo and tsoi sim available, which is definitely a start.  I'd like to congratulate both farmers markets for going through the process to be able to accept food stamps, as well.  However, farmers markets don't seem to be the point that grabs people to the cause - they are a place for pocketbook activism rather than movement building.

In the end, farmers markets certainly hold a lot of merit, but will not revolutionize the food movement on their own.  And no one ever claimed that farmers markets were the be-all-end-all in local food procurement, but its been great to be able to come to these conclusions on my own.  If you've got an observation of your own about them, or would like to dispute something above that I said, please do!  I'd love to start a healthy dialogue.


chris said...

having worked this summer and last at various farmers markets in the area (san francisco, marin, sonoma and petaluma) i'd agree with all of the salient points you've made, it is difficult to imagine any of these markets serving as the sole source of change when it comes to the way people see a food system. they are here today and gone tomorrow when you are hungry and for some, more a reason to brag about how expensive the rainbow chard was and rave about whatever food truck has the most cachet that week.

also, although i do agree for the most part that taking time away from a farm in order to sell products can be detrimental there is something to be said about the building and maintenance of a community of farmers in that space, many of whom return year after year. for me, personally that has been advantageous because it not only allows me to expand my network of like minded people in agriculture but also provides a foot in the door when it comes to exploring other facets of the food system, so i'd like one day to see how andante dairy processes cheese from goat to table, they're right next to the stand i work, i say hello and go from there. it is, i would say, sometimes counterproductive in an environmental sense when one sees how far some of these vendors travel to bay area markets, salinas, central valley, guinda (three and a half hours north) in order to find a receptive and profitable market, and i think the idea of food hubs can definitely coerce medium sized farms to more efficiently gain a profit. also, as a inexperienced farmer or intern, you are gaining less knowledge about your chosen field if you are used continually to staff farmers markets (i have the suspicion some of the interns i had a couple years ago preferred this route, less manual labor).

as for diversity, it's tough to get a handle on, for every ten european tourists at the ferry building gesturing for a bunch of siberian kale there was maybe one hispanic woman with a child in tow offering ebt farmers market tokens. i'd say in this geographic area it has something to do with the existence of long running fruit and vegetable stands that ship in produce from large farms in the central valley. they are not organic and tend to reinforce the notion that grocery store produce for the most part encourages: good vegetables and fruits should be cheap and tasteless, but look impressive on a shelf and serve to feed many. also, for the latino population it seems more about the connection, the ease in speaking spanish at the counter without encountering rolled eyes or glares and perhaps the tenuous connection to a relative working as a bracero in stockton or bakersfield.

also, on a somewhat different tack, i think being able to temporarily transform a space such as a farmers market into an area people feel comfortable spending more time in and exchanging and fomenting ideas can be an additional boon. browsing kickstarter i saw this, and it looks pretty cool.

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