An interesting article was printed in today’s Los Angeles Times about the Santa Monica Farmer’s Market. It’s probably one of the most important community markets in the US, one which many other markets nationwide try to emulate. However, this latest trend doesn’t seem like something that should be emulated. Or should it?
When the market opened in in 1981 it was a lifesaver for small farmers in the area. They were finally able to bring their fresh produce to a centralized place and sell it directly to the consumer, eliminating the middle-man. When chefs caught on with the idea, some home cooks seemed to grumble, saying that the best vegetables were going to those buying large quantities, and they were left with the extras. Over the years the two groups have found a way to coexist, and some even swap recipes and tips on how to serve up all the delicacies like stinging nettles and green garlic that are included in the market’s cornucopia. Now, the chefs have their own competition to contend with.
In recent years, wholesale produce companies have arrived on the scene, and have started buying even larger orders of produce from the farmers. This is a blessing for the farmers – they are now able to ensure a certain amount of profit off of products with very short shelf-lives. However, the chefs are none too happy about it, complaining that they no longer have the flexibility to buy and plan their menu on a whim and are now forced to call ahead (as the wholesalers do) to reserve their ten flats of strawberries. The home cooks, however, aren’t harmed: they can still buy their carton of peas or heads of lettuce as they please.
In my mind, the fact that this argument exists is both good and bad. As the article points out, it is really up to the market to decide how to deal with the competition (they are toying with the idea of having different times for wholesales, or creating a new wholesale market entirely). This can mean good things for the market: the wholesalers will ensure that the farmers keep coming, and the chefs and home cooks can benefit from this as well.
However, from an ecological standpoint, some of these companies (including a subsidiary of Sysco Corp., which sells to hundreds of thousands of establishments throughout the nation) deliver roughly 10% of its Santa Monica market purchases all over the country. This is how we get fresh Meyer lemons, among other items, on our supermarket shelves this time of year (yes, in a way, you’re buying farmer’s market produce when you pick up one of these sweet and sour treasures). If you’re hip in geography, you’d know that it’s almost exactly 3,000 miles from Boston to Santa Monica. That doesn’t seem like much to us these days, but it would be similar to buying produce from the Ural Mountains in Russia while living in southern Germany.
You wouldn’t do that, now, would you?
But it’s not really about globalization (or nationalization in this case) that’s at the core of the problem. The issue is more fundamental: can a community, or a part of a community, take sole ownership of a community farmer’s market? What happens when larger corporations come in? When does economics trump the ethics of trying to avoid the middle man, as these farmers originally were doing? In an increasingly competitive market, what do small-scale farmers have to do to survive, and does this run counter the philosophy of a community market?
Perhaps we should just use the market as a definition of the term “what goes around comes around” and hope that all three types of shoppers will be able to find harmony this time.