Jun 15, 2015

Looking for Eden

The scene is as close to pastoral as one can hope find in the midst of a large city, tables groaning under fresh produce and baskets piled high with fruit while fresh cheese and eggs are carefully placed in large handwoven baskets--a treasure to be carried home and lovingly prepared. This is what we see every morning from our tent at the farmers markets. In that careful moment between daybreak and blistering Texas heat, customers stroll from one farmer to another. They move, list in hand, from "their meat guy" to "their egg person" to "the milk people". Their shoes still bear the trace of the dew gathered as they walked through the park to reach the market, their voices are hushed as they shop. These early shoppers shared with the farmers the hushed expectancy of a time dedicated to food and to valuing the farmers whose labors bring the food to market.

There is something incredibly rejuvenating about a farmers markets. We sell at markets and it is deeply satisfying on a visceral, even spiritual, level, to be able to pass along the tangible result of our efforts. To hold in our hands the proof of our labors is a privilege. To be able to hand this to someone who values the care and sacrifice that went into the creation of that food is a blessing. We are, we know, supremely blessed, to be able to share life-giving sustenance to others.

At the end of market, we gather our food for the week. We have shared our riches with others, we gather from others bounty that will feed our children for the coming week. We have held back some cheese for our friends and they have reserved honey for us. Sometimes there is little left. We may wish that we had been able to grab some of the lime basil before it flew off our fellow farmer's tables, but we rejoice with them that they sold out. There is often a festive feel to the end of market. We have crossed a finish line in bringing our product from the field to the creamery to the market; we are gain the precious burden of bringing the fruits of our friend's labors home to feed our own children. It is a symbiotic relationship from every angle. Farmers need the city customers, farmers need each other, farmers need the organizations that run the markets, who in turn need the farmers to fill the market and the customers who value the market. Given the realities of 21st century living this is about a perfect situation as one could possibly find, a return to Eden within the confines of some of the largest cities in the world.

Lately, though, we wonder if there may not be a serpent in this garden, or at least a root-rot that may be eating away at the markets.

To be honest, there have been murmurings of discontent with our market models for some time, now. As far back as the March/April 2009 issue of Mother Jones, an article titled "Foodie, Beware" warned that a subtle shift was taking place in the markets. Farmers were turning to value-added products, then leaving markets altogether, for wholesale opportunities such as selling to restaurants, stores and delivery services. A shift was taking place, from markets filled with farmers to markets filled with prepared foods and loosely food-based crafts so that the shopper could fill those capacious baskets with dried flowers and spice rubs while they eat fresh breakfast tacos and sip good coffee. The customer may not complain, after all, these are the kinds of purchases that give that extra flavor and joy to life--but are these still properly to be called farmers markets? How many farmers does it take to allow a market to retain the title "farmers market"? What of the farmers? They talk quietly among themselves about declining sales. The "real" customers are not shopping in the numbers that they once were, they have been replaced by those who visit once, perhaps from out of town, or by those who come for the weekend routine of fresh pastry and coffee and to listen to the band and do a little people watching. These customers do not make up the bulk of what the farmers had grown accustomed to seeing, but customers are customers, right?

Unfortunately, no. These customers do not buy like the customers that we had grown used to at markets. Farmers, anxious to make ends meet adapt to the customers that do come to the markets. We have seen peach orchards turn to selling primarily dried fruit and preserves. One family did not even plant their usual market garden this year, as their focus has become handcrafted soaps and skincare products. In both cases the reason was simple--there are not enough customers to buy the fresh fruit and vegetables, leaving the farmers scrambling to develop products that will remain shelf-stable and bring a consistent income. The dedicated shoppers who come for the pure farmers market fare leave disappointed when they are unable to get the abundance of seasonal produce, many of them leaving the market system and turning to the organic fare in the grocery stores, leaving less customers to buy the kale, carrots and cantaloupe, and the downward spiral continues.

Where did this spiral begin? Can it be stopped? Is it perhaps time to acknowledge that the return to the market system that supports local, sustainable farming has failed? We have some thoughts that we would like to share from our years of selling at market and our observations of markets that we have visited across the country and even internationally. These will be shared in tomorrow's blog, in the meanwhile, we would appreciate any comments that readers may have regarding the current situation of farmer's markets in the United States in general, Texas in specific.

Until tomorrow~                

1 comment:

Constance Reader said...

I don't believe that the system has failed. So long as those selling prepared foods are small local producers, then I think they should be welcomed. However, there could be debate on the definition of "small". For example, Round Rock Honey is at the Austin area markets (and maybe others that I'm not aware of) even though they are a relatively large operation and their honey is widely available in stores. Whereas Austin Honey Company is a much smaller producer and is not available in stores, only at the markets. Texas Olive Ranch is another example of a local producer that operates on a large enough scale that their oils and balsamics are also widely available in stores.

Another factor to consider is barriers to participation: are there smaller local producers who are not selling their wares at the market because they can not afford the fees, the license/permit, the required white tent?