My favorite farmers’ market essay is a short piece by San Francisco Chronicle columnist Jon Carroll that he wrote eight months after 9/11. As America was raining “shock and awe” down on Afghanistan, and our airports were becoming maximum security facilities, Carroll’s reflection on his own Embarcadero Farmers’ Market brought us some solace from the storm. He told us that his farmers’ market was, “the happiest place on earth [because] I had not seen any metal detectors…armed National Guard soldiers…no announcements…concerning unattended packages.” It was an oasis of tranquility in a world suffocating under a cloak of fear.
Dare I contrast Carroll’s elegant piece with John McPhee’s brilliant “Giving Good Weight” which first appeared in the New Yorker back in the mid-1970s? In it, McPhee describes the early days of NYC’s Union Square Farmers’ Market whose pioneering local food consumers, long denied the ecstasies of fresh sweet corn, engage in virtual hand-to-hand combat ‘neath clouds of flying husks and silk, salted with briny New York accents. Are these contrasting perspectives just a case of East Coast “edgy” meets West Coast “mellow,” or did McPhee and Carroll offer us competing visions of what farmers’ markets would or could become?
On a perfect June day this year in northern Idaho, a place known as much for nature’s beauty as it is for white supremacist militias, a man shows up at a way-popular Saturday farmers’ market hung stem-to-stern with guns ‘n ammo. His cause? He was there to protest the market’s publicly stated policy of “No Open Carry” of firearms. The following week, anti-abortion advocates stood at the same market’s perimeter with their graphic images of aborted human fetuses, assuming somehow that local food aficionados were also rampantly pro-choice.
In some ways, it’s inevitable that the snapping dogs of non-food interests would try to sink their chops into the lush haunches of local food marketplaces with their swelling weekly audiences of shoppers. Try growing from barely 200 U.S. farmers’ markets in the 1970s to today’s 8,700, and see how well you handle the adulation. Yes, time to celebrate their success, but time as well to recognize that farmers’ markets are becoming our de facto Hyde Park “Free Speech Corner.”
At a summer meeting of the Santa Fe Food Policy Council, one member who directs the city’s largest food pantry politely asked another council member who oversees the city’s highly successful farmers’ markets why their prices are so high. It’s a common question loudly whispered by many perplexed shoppers whose loyalty to the growers overrides their cognitive dissonance that Albertsons’ produce may be half the price. While this conundrum has given rise to by-now familiar accusations of elitism and the exclusivity of many markets, it has also led to innovative ways of balancing the playing field at no cost to local farmers, many of whom qualify for food stamps themselves. At a new Santa Fe farmers’ market that serves the low-to-moderate income side of town, I counted no less than five separate voucher programs that encourage WIC participants, senior citizens, SNAP beneficiaries, children, and diabetic health clinic patients to buy local produce.
There is yet another group, superficially referred to as Millennials, whose interest in farmers’ market are decidedly more social. Of these younger visitors, the Washington Post (6/21/16) said they “view these outdoor markets as more a lifestyle choice than an opportunity to support agriculture.” By itself their lifestyle choices may not matter, but while farmers are reporting more bodies at their markets they are not necessarily seeing more cash in the till. As reported by the Post, Zach Lester, a farmer selling at the Dupont FreshFarm Market, said, “A lot of people that walk through markets are not shopping. They’re there to meet. They’re there to socialize.” In other words, their passion for farmers’ markets is not always paying off for farmers, a problem which may have long-term financial consequences for them as well as for those of us who love local food.
We’ve come to expect so much from these once–humble gatherings of part-time and small growers circled around the town square in their mish-mash of dilapidated motor vehicles. As farmers’ markets get bigger, better, and more pervasive, is it fair to ask them to belly up to the public table where more voices are clamoring for access and attention? Is there room for the non-affluent shopper, those who believe – rightfully-so in many cases – that their point of view must be heard, and even for the politician trolling for votes among the market-day crowds?
Do we duke it out in the courts over constitutional questions of free speech and assembly with those whose ideas we find intolerable in hopes we can keep them at bay, or do we meet them foresquare on our own turf? Perhaps we should counter gun advocates, for instance, with “open-carry” of vegetables – baby carrots inserted into the cartridge holders of bandoliers, flagrant displays of vegetables of mass consumption (VMCs) such as zucchinis, tomatoes, and potatoes; apples attached rakishly to our vest’s hand grenade clips. Our camouflage wear will mimic bins of fruits and vegetables so that we can slip unseen in and out of produce stalls.
Likewise, graphic color photos of delicious meals made from home-grown ingredients should be printed big and bold on placards whose bearers shout “I am pro-local!” and “I am pro-healthy life for all!” And of course, coupons and tokens of many shapes and colors – funded by government, foundations, and higher-end shoppers – should falleth from the heavens like the gentle rain on those eager to become food elitists themselves.
To loosen the wallets of the Millennials, perhaps we could issue them coupons good for $10 of fresh produce and one life-changing experience. For those running for public office who insist on shaking my hand even though I’m frantically juggling three overflowing, hand-crafted veggie totes, let’s set aside a free-speech corner at every market where they can share their views on issues like local food, regional food systems, and how they will allocate billions for those causes. Concerned that farmers’ markets might be overrun by Republican office seekers if we institute liberal political access policies? Don’t worry, the highly regarded Winne Poll found that farmers’ markets shoppers who self-identify as Democrats outnumber Republican shoppers by 4 to 1 (poll margin of error: +/- 27%).
Farmers’ markets should embrace their de facto role as the new town square. We need a safe place where the rough and tumble world of democracy and our exercise of the Bill of Rights can ensue without provoking mass hysteria nor undercutting the “quiet enjoyment” of those who seek comfort in the market’s sensual delights. Likewise, the markets’ shoppers should look like the whole community. There hasn’t been any shortage of creative ways to engage a community’s diverse demographics. Let’s continue to crank new ideas out of our imaginative marketing minds.
The hustle and bustle of the Saturday market brings many joyful moments. Stand with your eyes closed amidst the hungry masses eager to be set free by fresh local food, and you can often feel an energy like no other. But success, growth, and the fulfillment of what increasingly looks like a larger destiny awaits those who can effectively manage the tidal wave of varied interest in today’s farmers’ markets.