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What are farmers markets really selling

The farmers market, laments the Washington Post recently, just isn't what it used to be. The more than 8,000 such markets across the country were supposed to be public spaces where, as the Post says, average consumers could make "an investment in the future of local and sustainable agriculture." Farmers Markets were meant to fill in the "food desert" holes in the food-distribution chain. They would, in the words of former Undersecretary of Agriculture Kathleen Merrigan just four short years ago, take up the slack where full-service groceries like yours had abandoned serving the local citizenry, often the poor and minorities.

Turns out that's not the way it's working. Instead, as Virginia farmer Zach Lester complains to the Post, "[Customers] arrive for a bite or some booze, maybe a pizza at Red Zebra or a bottle of gin from One Eight Distilling.

“A lot of people that walk through markets are not shopping," he says. "They’re there to meet. They’re there to socialize.”

It shouldn't come as a surprise.

Farmers markets may be about politics inside USDA and within regional "food policy councils," but for shoppers, they, along with the wider notion of "community supported agriculture" are really about a yearning to rediscover pastoral and local values they can't find in supermarkets, writes University of Wyoming marketing professor Melea Press.

Community supported agriculture, Press writes, enlist the same classic ideas about American pastoralism that, first, drove urbanites into the suburbs in the 1950s and then tempted them back to the land in the '60s and '70s. CSA and the farmers market share several traits of a longing for pastoralism with those trends:

  • They promise an escape from the "noise, filth and moral degradation" of the city.
  • They give shoppers a chance to be part of a small and manageable community in a big, impersonal world
  • They give shoppers the chance to draw closer to nature— even, ironically, as they shop.
  • They give them a sense of certainty about their food in an increasingly uncertain world by meeting the producer face-to-face.
  • They indulge their sense of moral superiority.

Farmers markets, as a part of the whole concept of "community supported agriculture," according to University of Wisconsin professor Craig Thompson, are built to focus consumers not on the food it delivers, but the experience of being involved in it.

Think about it this way, Thompson writes: If you set out to purposely design a food system that offered only limited selection, at limited times of the year, at higher prices, determined largely by what the producer had to sell rather than what the customer wanted, pushing items you often aren't familiar with and don't know how to use, you couldn't do better than a community supported agriculture program.

The irony, according to Thompson, is that those very disadvantages of farmers markets compared to supermarkets are the strengths that draw shoppers to be there. Shopping through community supported agriculture is a form of austere "ethical consumerism." Ethical consumerism tells consumers they can use their dollars to make a difference in terms of sustainability and social justice—or, more cynically, hide their status-consciousness in social-responsible pretense. But he believes both of those interpretations of ethical consumerism miss the mark in defining farmers markets. His in-depth interviews of farmers and customers suggest it's the very inconveniences and aggravations of community supported agriculture that "enchant" the experience with shoppers. In stark contrast to ‘Disneyfied’ and ‘McDonaldized’ consumption that's prepackaged, microwaved and forced, shopping the farmers market disrupts and exeptionalizes the traditional food-shopping experience and, by extension, the morality of the consumer.

 

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