Myth 1: Markets (and by relationship all of community food) is only concerned with cozying up to the converted.
Myth 2: Markets encourage high prices for their items.
Myth 3: Markets are all the same.
But the largest myth about the farmers market movement spread by its detractors is that it is just about selling trendy food. Yet if selling food when trending had been the only aim, availability would artificially be kept limited, possibly even sold only by special invitation only or through bidding.
Instead, the farmers market movement has remained devoted to multi-faceted goals of building community involvement through remaining casually inviting, locally relevant, expanding the offerings and those accessing them each and every decade. The history of our movement makes that clear. And debunks all of those myths.
(•The history of the eras I am referring to has been written up by me many times before, and so not to annoy my long-time readers, I have put it to the bottom of this post.)
In the most recent era unfolding now, networks and cities interest in their markets has grown and deepened. Leaders are more comfortable with engaging with their farmers markets in terms of collecting and using data around wealth creation and creative output. Cities such as Pittsburgh PA, Austin TX, Minneapolis MN and Hernando MS, among others, are leading the way in partnering with their markets as both a platform for establishing grassroots metrics and for expanding awareness of the ecological perils of relying only on imports.
The last 45+ years show the intentionality and versatility of the market field and skewers the myths of any single origin. It also shows the effort to reach beyond food to include other assets and assorted civic leaders interested in building a new town square. And that market leaders are firm in the choice that design of the market should remain nimble by keeping most open-air or with easily-managed and low-cost infrastructure. That last point often frustrates city leaders or funders. That begets another myth, one where the market is not a serious mechanism for economic activity because of many markets’ use of secondary space, temporary structures and a refusal to go into storefront mode. The truth we need to share is that for grassroots initiatives expending time and money on infrastructure can solve some problems, but can also create others. So it is up to markets to find ways to show their serious intention to stick around without always resorting to brick and mortar. And when they do, to plan carefully and to allow for changes and other users of the same space.
Of course, there are other myths that need to be addressed in food system work. Scaling up, uniformity, efficiency are some others.
I’ll leave it to our dean of place, Wendell Berry, to take on some of those through a passage from his recent essay, “The Thoughts of Limits in a Prodigal Age” where he talks about capacity, scale, and form in agrarianism. He says: “It is a formidable paradox that in order to achieve the sort of limitless we have begun to call ‘sustainability’… strict limits must be observed. Enduring structures of household and family life, or the life of a community or the life of a country, cannot be formed except within limits. We must not outdistance local knowledge and affection, or the capacities of local persons to pay attention to the details only by which we can do good to one another. Within limits, we can think of rightness of scale. When the scale is right, we can imagine completeness of form.”
That triptych of capacity, scale and form has appeared on this blog before and will again because it so perfectly describes both the problem and the solution. It also encapsulates why the dominant paradigm cannot “see” us or work in tandem with us. It also beautifully describes the localness of organizing that markets know well. Those limits are exactly how our market founders staked a necessary place in their community and now can manage the outcomes of their projects or mission with respect to that place. So remember: Don’t hide the hard work your organization has done that is embedded in the decisions of location, products, procedures, and the goals of your market. It’ll help bust some of those myths.
(history of market eras)
- 1970s-1980s: Back-to-land farmers, civil rights leaders, and ecological advocates begin markets. Their organizing principle is “Grow it to sell it” -a provocative statement at the time by the way- asking for a steady commitment up front from both the growers and the buyers to act honorably and collectively. These markets opened in places (interestingly, in a lot of university towns ) such as Madison WI, Carrboro NC, Athens OH, Berkeley CA, Montpelier VT.
- 1990s: Community leaders, aware of those first growers-only markets, begin to open markets as holders of civic space adding a “learn together”/social cohesion motif to the grow it to sell it mandate. Places including San Francisco, Seattle, New Orleans, Portland, Cleveland, District of Columbia were the recipient of this round of founders. Interestingly, many of these leaders also became the founders of larger networks, including Farmers Market Coalition.
- 1990s-2000s: Main Street markets in smaller towns and in rural communities add markets to their revival initiatives in towns like Ocean Springs MS, Natchitoches LA, and Durham NC. These markets encouraged value-added items and new non-farm vendors, focusing on incubating new businesses and supporting nearby Main Street initiatives.
- 2000s: As technology advanced to allow at-risk populations to access markets with their EBT card, public health strategies became useful and the field of practioners and agencies in that field began to partner with and sponsor new markets to expand good food by getting markets in new places and adding public health incentives. One network that must be commended is Kaiser-Permanente’s markets on their own hospital campuses and markets such as Crossroads Farmers Market in Takoma Park MD.
- 2000s: Deeply embedded, longtime organizers add food initiatives to their portfolio of activities, utilizing the community assets of residents and responding to their requests for markets. Markets in and around central Brooklyn NY like Brooklyn Rescue Mission, East New York Farm and the ReFresh and Sankofa Markets in New Orleans learn from earlier markets using the market mechanism to offer residents the opportunity to be both the buyers and the vendors.