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Too many farmer's markets?

I never thought I would see this happen: throughout the local foods movement, there are complaints now from the farmers saying that there are too many markets and marketers. That means less money for each farmer, the ancient problem that never goes away. Lynn Byczynski had the courage to bring the issue up in the September, 2010 issue of her excellent publication, “Growing For Market.” Lynn points out that in the case of local farm markets, the problem is more one of distribution than numbers. Some areas have lots of them and some areas don’t have any. To remedy that, that is to increase the number of customers everywhere, “we need to educate people about the entire spectrum of food issues (health, nutrition, food security, farmland preservation),” she writes.

All well and good, but my mind keeps wandering off from the practicality of the problem to more philosophical thoughts about the whole business of business. If farm marketers think they have it tough, try making a living from writing. Everyone is a writer these days. It takes very little overhead to get started, and requires, at least in the minds of those who want to try it, very little preparation. Anyone with the gift of gab who can scrape up $3000, can get their book published if they can’t find a publisher. The result is that there are so many books out there that it is impossible to keep track of them, let alone read even a fraction of them. Most books never make a penny and the writers don’t care. They are in it simply for the pleasure of seeing their work and name in print or have a cause they are pushing. I feel guilty every time I encourage a young person to become a writer for money just as I feel guilty encouraging them to become farmers for money.

What words of wisdom do I need to hear in this regard? Is it really admirable for me to encourage young people into farming and into local food production as a business, knowing that while many are called, only a few are chosen? My experience is that encouragement can in some instances be downright harmful. Bullheadedness and luck are what brings success more often and then success does not always bring contentment but only nervous breakdowns. But how do you tell a person with great dreams and great intentions about farming that they are too nice to make money at it?

Farm markets have a related problem no one wants to talk about. The professional farm marketer often gets upset when an amateur out on a feel-good expedition, wants to open a booth at the market and practically give his or her produce away. This happens all the time. Yes, the amateur doesn’t last, but a steady string of them can hurt sales for the professionals. We all believe, or say we believe, in free enterprise but if you are the farm market manager, it is hard to resist the temptation to ruin this last bastion of free enterprise and set floor prices.

My deep, dark thoughts are extremely impractical. I’d like to see a world where food production (and writing) would be removed from the money game entirely, which is what we do with our backyard gardens and our personal journals. What if we were all responsible for our food just like we are responsible for bathing or brushing our teeth. Obviously that wouldn’t work. We all need money, but it hurts everything it touches.

Editorial Notes: Comment from EB contributor Jan Lundberg:
For a deeper and specific analysis on Farmers Markets, see "Buying local has its price" by Peter Korn in the Portland Tribune, Sept. 23, 2010 This analysis seems to indicate that more and more farmers markets have a serious impediment under the current system. Making more farmers markets is a good thing if possible, but the transition people want to see may not be possible when the current system and high population size are still rolling along and people are using petroleum like there's no tomorrow. Neither Logsdon's nor Korn's article spoke of the need to eliminate the truck and oil via bike carts and sailboats or barges. I know the farmer Don Kruger in the story. His produce is unsprayed, but not called organic. He supplies wholesale-priced produce for our bike-carting and sailing transport. an old but good webpage on Pedal Power Produce: http://www.culturechange.org/pedalpowerproduce.html
EB contributor Jason Bradford writes:
I know that farmers markets are very expensive to supply. Portland draws farms from 100 miles away or so and the fuel and labor bills are large. What I am seeing around here are two potential reactions. One is direct from farm ordering systems that include pick up at a site in town or deliveries to door, e.g., Corvallis Local Foods. But prices are still quite high for this so far. This other are informal neighborhood markets, un-regulated exchanges that are largely excess from backyards and include both barter and some cash transactions. This is thriving in south Corvallis where the community is very hip and plenty of land exists among houses. This market has become so popular it happens twice a week and is organized via a neighborhood list serve. I don’t think the on-line ordering and delivery/pickup has taken off much yet, but could do so if people are actually fuel constrained? It is going on in other places so curious to know how it is doing elsewhere. Got started in Eugene. The advantage of the neighborhood market is obviously that it is a grow your own and trade type, which makes it cheap, and the scale is very walkable/bikeable. The other still uses fuel for delivery, but they may be saving fuel over individual car trips to farmers markets.
-BA

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