Small Farmer's Journal

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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”.

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