Orion Magazine published a piece in this month’s issue by author Rowan Jacobsen that extols the virtues of the emerging food hub as the next welcome part of our movement.
Much of what is in this piece is spot on and well crafted to explain why the addition of local infrastructure and aggregation is quite necessary for many farmers and vital to the goal of building regional food systems. However, calling farmers markets “window dressing” as was done in this article shows an extremely abbreviated view of the role that grassroots, low-capital farmers markets play in this still-emerging food system.
When we talk about building more farms from an idea to full production, farmers markets are still the best place to give those new farmers the space and time to build their businesses while they watch their peers and learn from them, from shoppers and from other leaders that stop by. When attempting small amounts of new products that are not yet clear winners in the marketplace, where better to test those varieties but with diverse, ever-changing weekly populations such as those found in a market? When a local community wants to have healthier citizens, where else than a place that allows everyone to enter it just as they are and allows each participant time to get to their own version of local food awareness and civic engagement?
Achieving the moment where communities truly value local food production is a long strange trip and takes many seasons and a multitude of different organizing attempts to build even enough of those “early adopters” much less the early majority that will surely need to at least pass through tents on more than a few sunny days to begin to change their habits.
In case we have forgotten what the different market eras have done already:
The earliest markets that started in the 1970s brought small family growers and eager buyers together (mostly organized by farmers themselves) and did so using very little infrastructure or investment from outsiders. Many of those markets began because farmers were stymied by indirect buyers, even those buyers that worked on behalf of natural food stores and locally owned supermarkets. “Grow it to sell it” was a very powerful statement and maybe even a revolutionary one back then.
That era was followed by neighborhood leaders adding markets designed to invite a whole new group of community members (for example, senior citizens), and THAT was followed by small rural communities using farmers markets to revive their Main Streets and hold on to their towns.
Last but certainly not least, the public health community invited by markets to help bridge serious food access issues and pilot innovative programs has brought new energy to every market over the last decade and built partnerships that work tirelessly together in the halls of Congress and with other policymakers to show what local food can do, can accomplish where hospitals on wheels by themselves cannot. Each of these eras added an important piece to the food system movement and is still needed to curate it and don’t doubt it, future market eras will do more in areas not yet imagined. To paint the farmers market as “one size and one goal fits all” misses the continued evolution of this efficient and elegant mechanism.
To accomplish the big goals of behavior change for everyone (farmers, shoppers, policy makers etc), farmers markets have invited every food system idea into their midst, allowing never-ending tests in the only place that they were all really possible: the democratic town squares of food where personal yet collective transformation happens.
Can all farmers and buyers fit into markets? Of course not, nor were they meant to. But to speak anecdotally about sales at markets declining and there being “over saturation” when the entire community food system has reached (by most estimates) one to four percent of the population is shortsighted at best. Have sales declined for some farmers? Certainly. Maybe because serious infrastructure or rule changes were needed or maybe because markets needed some help along the way to manage their multiplying productions, help that mostly never came.
Let’s put it this way: the need for infrastructure is an argument that markets themselves have been making for a few decades, and in some cases, actually made happen for their farmers. It is not counter to the idea of the tented market in any way and when community infrastructure is added all producers will benefit. The need for capacity is also an argument that has been made by market organizers for decades; however, if it only comes at the sight of shiny new buildings and asking farmers to scale up-without eradicating the barriers that still exist for some of them-then has capacity help for them truly arrived?
The core truth is that the entire community food system remains immature. It is immature because it has not connected its networks and built collaborative communities of practice everywhere (using the terms of Meg Wheatley and Deb Frieze’s Emergence Theory)
All systems need appropriate stages of improvement to lift all in its rising tide. In order to work on economic, cultural and environmental levels, new leaders must be allowed to emerge and to connect. New ideas have to be allowed in alongside of those already present. Markets have needed help to make their case to newer and larger audiences for some time and see that food hubs can help make that happen. The business baseline of good food hubs is one that markets can learn from while sharing their community-building lessons in return.
Therefore, to style the farmers market field as a static anachronism is a dangerous idea to the health of the entire food system, without even recalling the very deep work done by its direct marketing sister-CSAs, which have certainly pushed forward the economic boundaries for intermediate farmers and allowed their infrastructure to grow.
Let me state it clearly: for farmers market communities, food hubs are welcome. (I wonder if the opposite is also true? And if not, why not?)
Food hubs will not replace the need for farmers markets in the case of many farmers and for many eaters; they will expand the idea for some of those farmers ready and willing to negotiate with wholesale concerns and most likely attract the farmers who were never deeply interested in retail sales or in introductory relationships with constantly changing buyers. The true hubs will stand alongside of markets and CSAs to share the responsibility of changing the way that all producers are valued. They will help encourage and expand needed investments and updates in food handling that do not ask small family farms to hand over their farm to large corporate interests.
The need to change the power structure and allow farmers to LEAD the negotiations over what price, product and types of appropriate growth that each farm needs is the goal for farmers markets, for CSAs and for food hubs too. With all respect to a favored author of mine, to separate us into what was and what is next is very wrong.