Jul 17, 2015

Identifying the Serpent

Shopping in Switzerland
In my last blog post, I talked about farmers markets--specifically farmers markets as we know them in Texas, visiting the bucolic ideal that we were introduced to when we began selling at markets. We discussed the downward spiral of farmers turning to more value-added products, markets turning to more products produced far from any farm, and customers turning away from markets, leading farmers to have to be more flexible in what they produce, hence the value-added products. Which is the chicken and which is the egg in this scenario?

Here at Swede Farm we have noticed an overall decline in market sales for the past two years. This decline holds true for markets in Houston and in Austin, large markets and small, weekend markets or week day markets. When we speak to other farmers and market vendors, they report a similar trend in market sales. One conjectured that it was due to the proliferation of farmers markets in the city, noting that it was with the expansion of markets that their income dropped an average of 30%. Market managers note that the cities being served should be able to handle an abundance of markets. They point to the population of Austin and Houston, they note the demographics; well educated consumers with disposable income, and conclude that Texas cities should see thriving markets in all areas, on all days of the week. Ironically, these same market managers comment that their markets are down--and they point to the growing number of markets as the reason for why the numbers are down.

The truth is, though, that most of these markets are small, falter early on and rarely thrive past the first two years.

The truth is, that these vendors are in multiple markets. Each time a market opens, the farmer or prepared food vendor stretches to be in the new market as well as their old markets. If sales are down at one market due to the opening of a new market, the decrease of sales at the established market should be made up by sales at the new market--yet this is not happening.

Markets are not failing everywhere, our travels have confirmed this fact. Over the past two years, we have been able to visit markets in multiple cities in the United States, from New York City to San Francisco and others scattered between the two. We have shopped in markets in England, Germany, France, Italy, Switzerland, and Spain. We have seen thriving farmers markets of all sizes and in varying kinds of neighborhoods. There are a few key factors that we have noted that seem to differentiate Texas markets from the thriving East and West coast markets. We believe that these differences create a challenge that Texas markets must address in order to not only survive but also thrive.

While there have obviously been farmers markets in American from the earliest days of the nation, the modern farmers market movement is fairly young. The proliferation of farmers markets across the country can be traced in large part to the growing awareness of a need for sustainable local food systems. Consumer awareness was captured by books such as The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan (2006) and films such as "Food, Inc", directed by Robert Kenner. This joint awareness of the importance of local foods and the pitfalls of factory farming were a boon for farmers who were looking for another way of doing business. The growing local food movement inspired many to leave their corporate jobs in order to be a part of the new movement. Some of these adherents gained the courage to begin their own sustainable farms, while others committed themselves to organizations such as Sustainable Food Center and GrowNYC that seek to establish new and functional food infrastructures. Consumers, informed of the impact of "factory farms"and desirous of supporting local businesses sought other ways of shopping, searching out farmers markets, shopping directly at farms and becoming involved in a CSA program. As new farmers markets emerge and (hopefully) grow, the supporting organizations travel to places such as New York City and San Francisco in order to "see how it's done". Unfortunately, while these vaunted market systems are inspiring, they provide a model that may not be one that can be replicated in Texas.

Buying from friend Lynn of Lynnhaven Farm in Brooklyn
San Francisco and New York City have several natural characteristics that change the dynamic of DFW area*, and these areas are growing rapidly. What does this mean for the local food movement?  In order to buy farmland, would-be farmers must go further and further away from the city centers. Most markets, inspired by early pioneers in the local food movement, adhere to a 150 mile rule, meaning that farmers must be located within a 150 mile radius of the city in order to sell at the market. As farmers must move further and further away from city limits, the "crop" of farmers from which a market may draw their vendors necessarily grows smaller and smaller. Less farmers=weak markets. One alternative to this challenge may be increasing numbers of urban farms. There are cities in Texas that are exceptions to the monolithic struggling market system, cities such as Austin. How does Austin get around the challenges faced by Houston and Dallas? Austin is not as sprawling as Houston or Dallas, with less than 300 square miles Austin is literally less than half the size of her neighbors to the North and Southeast. This means that there is more potential farmland within the required 150 miles radius available to would-be farmers who want to vend at Austin markets. Austin also utilizes more urban farms. This may not be long-lived, however, as urban farms, find themselves increasingly under attack. As the neighborhoods surrounding them become more gentrified, urban farmers face being zoned out of existence, or taxed out of existence, as the value of surrounding neighborhoods skyrockets.
their local farmers markets. Both cities (and others with highly touted farmers markets such as Portland, OR and Seattle, WA) have metropolitan areas with land areas ranging from 84 square miles (Seattle) to 302 square miles (NYC). Houston and the Dallas/Forth Worth metropolitan areas begin at a hair under 600 square miles for Houston and over 600 square miles for the

Market in Leipzig, Germany
The second major difference in these cities with thriving market systems dovetails with the size of the cities, and this is the availability of mass public transportation. Populations that are more likely using trains and buses to get from work, to home, to shopping are also more likely to be buying smaller amounts of food, They are less likely to be engaging in mass shopping excursions for the simple reason that the average trip to a big-box grocery store will yield more food than can be easily carted home via the subway or even via a bicycle. Markets that run each day of the week and in different parts of the town will be more likely to see business when one is grabbing a few quick items on the way home. More sprawling cities, such as Houston or Dallas, will see commuters driving personal vehicles long distances. Stuck on freeways for hours, it would appear that they are less likely to adopt a 'guerilla' method of grocery shopping, relying instead on occasions during which they may stock up in bulk--not exactly a farmers market friendly method of shopping. Even cities with notoriously arduous commutes, such as NYC, that nevertheless manage to maintain a thriving farmers market scene, draw large amounts of shoppers from those who live within the city itself. These are shoppers that utilize the markets to get truly exceptional items in smaller amounts that can be found by means of a small deviation in their routine, made possible due to extensive public transportation systems that allow them to access perhaps smaller but stable markets in different parts of the city. This is not dissimilar from what we observed in European markets, where the farmers markets are used to bring the high quality items to shoppers accustomed to a two-tiered method of shopping. (This we will discuss in our next blog post.)

If the challenges facing farmers markets in the larger cities such as Houston and Dallas are apparently immutable issues such as sprawling cities and lack of acceptance of public transportation leading to different shopping habits, is there any hope to be found for farmers markets? Does this necessarily mean that farmers markets are doomed to be sub-par in our larger cities?

We do not believe this to be the case--provided the systems set up to support local farms and farmers markets recognizes the differences between Houston and New York City. Addressing the challenges faced by our larger cities will require the courage to admit that Houston is not NYC, nor is it San Francisco. Markets will succeed when we embrace a Texas-style ingenuity and flexibility to get the job done. Standards need to change, expectations need to change, rules and regulations need to change. In addition to the issues hobbling our markets, we have competition drawing away our educated consumers who desire to support the markets. We need a two pronged approach to solving the problem. First we need to recognize the strengths of the competition and adapt to better compete and secondly we need to reassess what will make a successful TEXAS farmers market system.

This is what we will be discussing with the next blog post. As always, please chime in with your perspectives and solutions. We need to implement changes that will make the situation better for everyone.

*Size of cities based on information found at this site.

1 comment:

Milk Processing said...

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