What’s Wrong With Farmers Markets

farmers market

New Jersey USA, where I live, is awash in seasonal farmers markets.1 What’s not to love about that? They support local agriculture, and we get fresh nutritious food right from the source.

This is to tell you what’s not to love about that.

In the typical case, a town gives market vendors weekly use of some land, such as a closed-off street or parking lot, for nominal cost. The market receives free publicity, courtesy of the town. Regional farmers come with their produce, and in addition, usually there are local cottage-industry vendors of products such as baked goods, jams, and even non-foods such as soap and candles.

Here’s the first problem. Within a few miles of my local farmers market, there are about a dozen other places to buy food. Some are part of a big chain, and some are independent stores. They employ local people. They pay local taxes. Their presence helps keep the business district humming. Why does the town government subsidize their competition? Every purchase at a farmers market is a sale lost at one of the other stores, no? Those businesses need to pay rent. Their landlords pay property tax. Every little bit helps.

To the town government, a farmers market may look superficially like a win-win. We make townspeople happy, without spending any of the town’s money. But we are in effect subsidizing the vendors’ rent. I don’t consider it the job of my government to tip the scales in favor of some businesses at the expense of others.

I have another complaint: “Local” is in the eye of the beholder.2 At many farmers markets, I see vendors selling fruits and vegetables that obviously aren’t grown too nearby. The produce may be early for the season here; or may be big and plentiful at a time when true local farmers are coping with a drought or heavy storms that retarded their harvest. So how did those products land at the farmers market table? The typical story you’ll hear is that these farmers have farmer friends. Farmer A takes some of farmer B’s output, and vice-versa. Farmer B may be a little farther away, but it’s all for a good cause, right?

And how about farmer C and D and E? They all have output to put on the table, so to speak. This could get a little complicated on the back end. But there’s a solution for that. It is the regional wholesale produce market. That’s where the store owners I mentioned procure their goods. And the wholesale market works equally well for farmers market vendors. They can pick up some additional products to round out their offerings. And that’s what they do.

So your romantic vision of farmers bringing their produce directly to market is in some measure a fantasy. A good proportion of the veggies you see there come via the same supply chain as those in your local supermarket.

Now let me surprise you with something. I’m a big fan of local organic agriculture. I go out of my way to find fresh organic greens, for health reasons. I’m happy to be able to find them in local food stores. I want to encourage them to stock more of those products. The best encouragement to a grocer, is to see the stock move.

And let me give you another surprise. I belong to a type of co-op, so-called community supported agriculture (CSA), that buys and redistributes organic vegetables from a local farmer. (I know it’s local, as I’ve visited the farm and seen the crops growing.) The CSA members take turns at the labor involved in weekly sorting and distribution. The CSA competes with local grocers, but it is fair competition: no government subsidy.

One more surprise. I agree with the goal of encouraging small growers of vegetables and fruit throughout the country. I consider vegetables a public good, as economists call it. Eat more veggies and save on medical bills! The U.S. government gives billions in subsidies each year to large industrial farmers of corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton, and rice.3 We are subsidizing the wrong crops. We should be subsidizing vegetable cultivation, as a public health measure. Farmers markets don’t accomplish that goal, though; they just shift income from one set of distributors to another.

Notes

  1. 2020 Edible Jersey Farmers’ Market Guide
  2. Also see Locavore’s Dilemma. https://www.publicaffairsbooks.com/titles/pierre-desrochers/the-locavores-dilemma/9781586489410/
  3. see Environmental Working Group Farm Subsidy Primer https://farm.ewg.org/subsidyprimer.php

One comment

  1. Teri White Carns

    Interesting commentary about farmers’ markets. Ours may be unusual, but in Anchorage, all of the produce, honey, meats, and the like are grown locally. There are a few vendors selling more processed foods (breads, dog foods, kettle corn) that are made with ingredients from other places, but all of the production is done locally. We do also have CSAs, but there’s so much! I can never keep up. Thanks for the insights.

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