Farmers Markets - are they victims of their own success?

When I first moved to San Francisco, back in the 1990’s, farmers markets were one of the things I loved best about the city. I’d never seen one in London (where I grew up) and the concept was both novel and delightful to me. The idea that I could buy locally-sourced, super fresh produce (often harvested a few hours before), free of nasty pesticides, directly from the farmer (therefore cutting out the middle-man) was something I found so appealling. After all, I didn’t have a driving licence so I couldn’t take a car out of the city, take a day trip and in the process pick up artichokes and zucchini at the side of the highway.

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But then again, I realised, didn’t need to — because the farmers were coming to me! And eating a freshly-ripe peach, then taking home bags of earthy potatoes and juicy strawberries was my idea of heaven…

Stroll, Mingle, Savour…

Now, of course, there’s a farmers market on every corner of every big city, and just in the US but across the world. Of course, I’m still a big fan — I believe in buying local produce, contributing to my community and promoting an urban food environment. Also, personally, I love the atmosphere and the buzz of these places; being able to stroll, mingle, enjoy… grab a coffee, savour the experience and make my food shopping a pleasure, not a chore.

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Victims of their own success?

But I can’t help but think, in some ironic way, that many farmers markets are actually becoming victims of their own success…or at the very least they’re losing their way, because what I see today is a far cry from the ‘revolutionary’ set ups I witnessed 25 years ago. What am I talking about? Well, here are a few examples…

1.  Fashionably expensive — My biggest gripe is that farmer’s markets have become playgrounds for the urban wealthy. I’m all in favour of paying a bit more to help a farmer, but there’s no way I (or most people) can justify spending three times the price of food in a supermarket. Farmers markets should not exist to the serve the needs of people who drive there in 4x4s!

2.  The plastic bag epidemic — I’m seeing more and more sellers giving out plastic bags and it’s raising my blood pressure. We all know the perils of plastic and why this nasty habit should be knocked on the head, pronto. Of course, many shoppers are wise and bring their own cotton or hemp bags with them, but for those who forget, handing out plastic freebies is no way to protect our planet.

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3.  Downright dishonesty — I’m talking about sellers who aren’t farmers at all, but instead are selling someone else’s produce under false pretences. Apparently this is become a major issue in certain parts of California, where rogue traders are appearing…not to mention some unscrupulous farms re-packaging goods from across the US or even in Canada then sell them as ‘locally produced.’ Obviously the majority of sellers are honest, but it is, unfortunately, a problem.

4.  Not enough choice — I’m by no means spoiled but if I’ve been at the grocery store a few days previously and there’s four or five times more variety, buying at the market may well feel a bit of a let down.  Of course I understand understand farmers want to sell things they’ve just grown, but the sad fact is that as modern consumers, we’ve grown accustomed to a certain amount of choice and if it’s not on offer, in an appealing way, we may go elsewhere.

5.  Fear of pesticides — it may sound absurd, but there’s actually no guarantee at some of these markets that artificial fertilisers pesticides haven’t been used on the crops. Just because food is grown locally does not make it organic. When in doubt, ask!

Of course, this doesn’t mean that we have to abandon farmers markets. There’s a lot to be said for leaving behind the traditional corporate stores, selling produce that has been picked unripe (to ensure it makes the long journey from farm to store shelf without going rotten). And it’s well-known that many of us are prepared to ‘sacrifice’ variety for food from within a 70 km radius, because this means it hasn’t been shipped across a hemisphere (using up who knows how much in fossil fuels) and helps reduce our carbon footprint.

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And, most importantly of all, we want to support these kinds of markets because we want farmers to prosper.All that said,I think it’s fair to say that farmers markets need to re-think some aspects of their business model, because whilst a lot of us are prepared to pay more for their wares, we don’t want to pay it through the nose. No-one wants to feel like they’re a sucker — stumping up three times as much for a loaf of bread that they would buy in a local supermarket (that, often as not, has also been freshly-baked!)

We also want to know that what we’re getting is the real deal, which means that locally-sourced markets have to be more than a fashion statement, particularly in our much-corrupted food world. So come on farmers…up your game because so many of us are ready to support you when we know you’re passionate about what you do and because you really do care about providing a valuable service to the community.