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to market

to market

to buy a fat pig

by Lynn Miller

(This editorial appeared in the Winter 2011 issue of Small Farmer’s Journal)

A farming friend recently declared that in the Seattle area the concept of local farmers serving local consumers seemed to have reached a saturation point. She observed that sales were the indication and to illustrate spoke of her own case; with farmer’s market sales down two consecutive years – 20% down two years ago and another 20% dip in 2010. She suggested that while they might be needed elsewhere, at least in Skagit County Washington they did NOT need more farmers. In her view more farmers would just mean less income for each. I must respectively disagree and in the loudest volume I can muster on the printed page.

Several things are a play here, and together they spell confusion.

First; the great recession – sales are down most EVERYWHERE. (And the big dogs of commerce, watch their sorry and insidious scurry for advantage.)

Second; three years ago URGENT and FASHIONABLE demand for fresh clean local foods coupled with lots of cash sales resulted in a most unfortunate attitude of entitlement on the part of some local farmers. Entitlement as in “I’m not going to chase sales – either they want this produce or they don’t. They know where to find me. Don’t these people know that they have to step up and buy this stuff if they want us to continue farming?” This is a dangerous attitude in the best of times. In this economic climate it borders on suicide. Good, creative, personable, aggressive sales efforts (including appropriate pricing) ARE resulting in respectable sales. Adjustments must be made constantly. Extra effort is making a difference, especially with today’s tight purse strings. Standing and glaring at the passing customers doesn’t make the grade.

Third; consumers in developed(?) countries will always search for convenience. And large corporate retail chains compete very hard to provide that convenience. If the consumer can get “fresh? local? organic?” produce from Safeway, while they are picking up the processed foods they can’t live without, why would they go the extra miles to a farmer’s market? It is another sign of success muddying the waters.

Fourth: The real dillution in the fresh local organic markets comes back door from the ill-advised and mis-applied USDA organic certification which has lowered standards and allowed large scale industrial production to flood the conventional markets with “fresh”, “local” and organic” stamped goods which are highly suspect. Dangerous circumstance. And there is very little public notice of this. It is another sign of success muddying the waters.

Fifth: Within so-called alternative agriculture circles there are turf wars abrew with clubs, associations, coops, and marketing organizations all muscling-up to control the number of selling farmers and the amount of produce in an effort to protect “market share”. It is another sign of success muddying the waters. Counterproductive to say the least.

The simplest applications of the so-called law of supply and demand suggest that there is some illusory optimal ‘balance’. And that this balance wants to fall short. In other words if you have customers for 46 baskets of asparagus you need to have only 40 or 41 available to sell. This keeps demand sharp and price strong. If you have 50 baskets to sell and customers for only 46 the unsold will bring down the return to the farmer. But all of this works within some abstract finite notions of demand and customer count. The so-called law of supply and demand in our world of food production is an insidious apology, an excuse, a rationale for those who have already convinced themselves it can’t work. It’s destructive nonsense. With hundreds of millions of folks starving here and abroad, we have no moral right to speak of controlling production to keep “easy” and lucrative sales coming.

Even with only 50 customers in attendance, the farmer who has 75 baskets of incredible, tender, tasty and artful asparagus – and offers them each and all with a smile, a free soup recipe and a sprig of cilantro – will not only sell all of the produce but likely bring new customers to the market AND create a vitality that will entice new farmers. New farmers with increased urgency and goodwill bring more customers and some of those buyers will actually be farmers themselves.

The farmer’s market with a couple of farmers sprinkled in amidst a handful of crafters does not attract the number of customers that a market of many farmers does. And the savy consumer, the true epicurean looking for that ultimate produce at a killer of a price, will recognize that the wide variety of many sellers suggests great deals can be made. It would be counter-productive if stalwart market farmers were to work to limit their number because they wanted to hang on to “market share”.

If you happen upon a vendor with a card table displaying 4 sacks of homegrown oranges at a farmer’s market where 6 other vendors are showing off some soaps, knit hats, and assorted salad greens, would you be likely to make a concerted effort to return to this small market? If instead you happen upon a lively, active populous market where you have to wait your turn to even get close enough to see the mountain of oranges cleverly displayed in the back of an old truck adjacent to a booth presenting a wide variety of mushrooms alongside homemade pastas and that smack up against an adventurous and expansive display of stone fruits rung round by jars of preserves reflecting the silvered lights of adjacent fresh iced fish which are in turn absorbing the soft greens of mountains of brocolli, spinach, lettuce and cabbage all softening the sounds of the gutar music flowing from behind the display of herbs and nuts, would you be likely to return? Even if, or especially if, your cash reserves were low? There is a reason why, through the ages, the vibrant street markets of the world have always attracted folks poor and rich. One reason is that because here we can see and feel the truest pulse of an ever changing supply and demand, a pulse which informs and decorates our living cultures.

Farming is the singlest greatest invention of mankind. After farming and certainly because of it, humanity’s next greatest invention was the marketplace.

I’ve got two extra sacks of potatoes I don’t need – I have a sense of what they are worth to me – maybe some measure of what it cost to grow them. I have a hankering for lamb and eggs but am not set up to produce them on my little market garden plot. To buy that stuff would set me back a bag of coin I don’t have. So I set out with my potatoes to join lots of other farmers at a predetermined location where, each week, people come to swap goods. Once there I find myself tempted to swap for a fat little pig but, lucky for me, I don’t have what the pig farmer needs. Then I notice a scuffle as three women fight over a small display pile of San Marino tomatoes to the exclamations of the farmer/salesman who publically laments not having grown more of this savory fruit. Short time later I see that same tomato farmer leading that fat little pig home. A light bulb goes off and right there and then I decide to grow San Marinos next season. The marketplace made it happen. Independent farmers gathered together to swap and sell holding a living breathing heart pumping economy in their hands. A real and familiar economy. Not that tall, dead, contrived thing we know as the “general economy”.

It is too easy to blame it all on the general economy, but certainly there is the inescapable truth of this financial earthquake we all feel. We do ourselves a great disservice if we continue to think of this time, this great recession, as some natural phenomenon, some purely unavoidable correction in the general economic system. Yes, the baloon got too big and burst but that too was not inevitable. Though the opaque blankets and smoke screens may lead us otherwheres, I personally believe that what we are suffering through has been laid on us by a political and banking system gone berserk with greed, corruption and dishonesty. (And this has been allowed and even encouraged by the fourth estate, our press. Journalism no longer is journalism, its former practioners have taken cheap seats on the bus to pleasure island.)

So what has this to do with us, a farflung community of small farmers and folks who care intensely about small farms? Maybe just about everything.

The world needs millions of new independent small farms and it needs them NOW. What’s more, regardless of whether it is Skagit County or a rural county in Bangladesh, Los Angeles or remote Iowa, more farmers – more farms – and more produce will energize local markets everywhere. The industrial model of agriculture is failing in very big and nasty ways. Nasty weather, commercial fertilizer shortages, protection rackets, genetic mutatologies, wholesale industrial breakdowns, and many other elements are going into a mix that is aggravating the rapidly approaching worldwide food shortage.

As recently as a week ago I was in a large supermarket chain store and saw printed banners in the produce section warning consumers of coming shortages in certain produce brought on in part by weather problems. These banners made it very clear that there would be less lettuce and the price would be substantially higher! I suggest we will see more such banners cropping (pun intended) up everywhere.

I sit at my kitchen table, early in the morning, and look out the little windows at a completely altered landscape. Last night it snowed eleven inches, and today the familiar has been altered. Everything is weighed down, lidded by the quiet white cloak, soft and silent. Animals wait to see if this is temporary, to see if they need to remind themselves of old useful postures and routines. Wild rabbits wait in familiar little hidey holes as do the coyotes. Winter birds are backed under their covers glad for the wind to be gone, not yet worried about food. It is a pleasant time and lovely too. Twenty degrees before the sun is up, but who knows if today it will burn through the low fog thickened snow clouds? Who knows if it will continue to snow or warm up? Who knows if it will turn this beautiful ground cover to a raging destructive flood? Or allow it to remain for months as the first blanket of many? What we do know is that overnight what we took for granted has changed. We took for granted being able to walk leisurely, if sometimes cold, to the barn to initiate chores. We took for granted that we’d be able to find that shovel, that hose, that chain, easily. And now it is buried and hidden. This moment just after the big snowfall can be see as an analogy for this economy and the difficult and different moments we find ourselves locked in. We wait to know how to behave. If we are farmers we may even be thinking about ways to tighten up our sales. How do we sell more of what we produce? Do we need to dissuade others from joiining our ranks? No, not if our markets and the vitality of our cultures matter to us.

Why do farm markets matter? How is it that they insist themselves, haphazard – vaudevillian – corny – burlesquelike upon us? What do we risk by continuing to discount one of the oldest and most organic of social service partnerships? These questions go to the core of what I suspect is a deeply ingrained flaw in the human psyche. As we progress, or suspect we progress, up that transparent ladder towards questionable social supremacy we are quick to shed those skins that would paint us as ordinary, slow, common, dirty, and trapped. “Farming” is one of those things we seem too quick to shed. “market bazar” is another. So, its not just about our sales, its also about how we want to see ourselves in society. “Farming” that original nobility and “market bazar” the time-tested entry towards security, gave us this day and our daily bread. We need to constantly remind ourselves of this. We need to see ourselves as worthy. We need to always be ready to invite others into our ranks.

One thousand years ago a farmer’s market was established for the city of Paris. Today it is known as the Rungis International Food Market. Huge, bustling, modernized and archaic (when measured against the corporate world), it spreads out today to exceed the landmass of the principality Monaco! Up until 1969 it operated out of the heart of the great city of Paris and was fondly known as Les Halles. Today, out of the necessity of scale, it is 4 miles outside of the city near the village of Rungis and includes its own beltway, railway, banks, hotels, car rental stations and truck repair shop. It is its own city – a city that lives at night. Even extending to its more recent digs, Les Halles / Rungis has for ten centuries been the belly of France – the driving force behind one of the most dramatically epicurean societies in history.

Rungis is not a thing in and of itself, it is a thing in the aggragate – and that is a critically important distinction. Here is an example of how many independent produce and market ventures have come together with an economic vitality that has arguably shaped an entire nation to beautiful advantage.

Rungis is a fresh market, first and foremost. At 2 am buyers arrive in droves to select – from acres of giant, connecting halls – meats and cheeses, fruits, vegetables and flowers. Rungis feeds 11 million people in the Paris region every day, as well as supplying markets and restaurants around the world. Eleven million! Can you imagine having a discussion of how to limit the number of farmers delivering produce to Rungis so as to hold prices steady? Unthinkable. Have prices swayed? Of course they have. Does everyone benefit from the market being truly free and open? You bet they do.

Day in day out for over 1,000 years the farmer’s market of Les Halles / Rungis has had as much a hand in the evolution and development of French society and the city of Paris as any other cultural or social aspect. It is sobering to think what might have been had these markets been asked to “temper” themselves with a view towards protecting that original band of farmers, naturally concerned about their income levels. The French might say “let them fight for their corners for with that we will add more corners, many more corners. And we will grow our city, grow our region, grow our culture!”

Rungis market is big, very big. And some might observe, too big. But it is not the only farm produce market bazar. Others, much smaller serve neighborhoods, and these in turn feed off the success of all the others big and small. Overlapping concentric circles, small markets, medium sized markets and big markets. All of it is about economic vitality and the intrinsic independence of millions of healthy small farm ventures.

Instead of fewer farmers at farmers markets, we need MORE hustle and bustle at farmers markets – we need MORE farmers MORE variety MORE opportunity MORE thrivance MORE corners, many more corners. Perhaps then we can look forward, over time, to having recreated a genuine culture of depth and happenstance for ourselves and for our futures. LRM