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Robert Sommers was onto something when he insisted that customers respond to pure aesthetics. “The sale of flowers does amazing things to the visual patterning of a market,” he wrote. “People walk differently when they carry a bouquet, as if they are showing off something beautiful before an audience.” Sell white pumpkins and snow peas, he said, in order to sell more plain orange pumpkins and good old lettuce. Excite the customers with musicians or jugglers, food stands and raffles—that is what they’ve come for. American markets have appropriated this feel through a loose formula focused on stimulation. In describing how to build a successful farmers market, a 1994 article in Public Management magazine emphasized variety (the authors suggest, for instance, having separate beef, poultry, and sausage vendors rather than one big meatropolis).
Thanks to this approach, the farmers market has stormed back into our lives. By 1994, there were 1,755 farmers markets nationwide; by 2000, there were 2,863. But the new institution is more entertainment than commerce. Markets have always been social centers, yet now socializing is not a natural by-product of trade, but rather something that has been deliberately introduced. Small farmers have certainly benefited from the crowds: in 2000, the USDA reported that 19,000 farmers were selling their produce exclusively at farmers markets. However, for the markets actually to reenter the food economy and provide goods on a significant scale, the two levels that govern any commerce—supply and demand—must change.
The supply side is pretty straightforward. Even nearly 3,000 markets can’t come close to serving all of the United States. The solution is not larger operations, but a greater number of smaller markets, to supplement existing ones and bring the concept to new areas. More venues and more frequent market days would encourage growers to adopt a method that, for now, remains a niche. A larger number of small, well-dispersed markets would provide an outlet for some small farms that face bankruptcy because they are unable to compete with larger farms for wholesale dollars. Furthermore, greater accessibility could change the consumer image of the farmers market from one of inconvenient indulgence to one of everyday shopping.
The demand side of the equation is trickier, because it requires ever-finicky shoppers to reconsider their role. As it stands, the charm of a genuine farmer’s callused hands draws in the customers, but the actual food-buying remains passionless. Although the venue for buying food has changed, the actual act has not. Most consumers still approach shopping at a farmers market as if they were in a supermarket: Whether looking for organic Brussels sprouts on the stalk or ripe tomatoes, consumers arrive knowing what they want and, with the entertainment as backdrop, seek to find it at the lowest price.
Consider, though, what might happen if hungry shoppers considered their dollars as thin paper votes. Perhaps they would cast them more carefully, first evaluating what kind of agriculture they wish to support. One person might choose to buy only from organic farmers; another might want to bolster an operation that grows traditional ethnic crops or whose workers are a tight, nuclear family; still another might be loyal to the seller who is committed to an affordable price. The specific ends are less important than what choosing represents: appreciation of the transaction between producer and consumer. Were food buying seen as the essential act that it is, our current approach would be revealed as ludicrous.
Of course, this is not to say that overhauling the way we shop would return the market to the form it had four hundred years ago, when farmers brought their surplus to a central clearing and hungry urban dwellers bartered at open wagons. We have come too far to return to a purely commercial exchange free from earnest intentions and deliberate determination—the kind of market that the old-timers in Vermont might have wanted. But this is precisely the beauty of the twenty-first-century farmers market: amid the broccoli florets and bunches of fresh thyme, just beyond the guy with the crystal, we are offered the choice to make it all matter, to transform the farmers market from a nostalgic puppet, a shadow of the past, to a meaningful and influential modern institution.