Criticisms of Local Farmers’ Markets

A couple of days ago I wrote about the Phoenix Farmers Market. Today I would like to share some criticisms.  Some of my criticisms are revealing about who I am.  Others are shared constructively.  I do, after all, support efforts to increase local food production for many reasons. 

For example, it is beneficial for local communities to have local producers thrive from the business of their neighbors. Economic independence goes hand-in-hand with political independence.

Local food production can also be more efficient by a variety of measures over the reigning paradigm of a global food market. Certainly, it is more efficient in terms of energy inputs. Eating locally is one way to conserve energy.

Another reason, to which I am particular, is that local food production makes local places more beautiful. Phoenix has much beauty. Unfortunately, we have more than our share of ugliness, too.

Many recent arrivals have no idea just how rural Phoenix was thirty years ago. Today we have mass produced communities sitting on once rich farmland. These mass produced housing developments are supported by big-box corporate chains supplying mass produced food from all over the globe. I remember citrus orchards where large condos now sit. I recall date orchards now occupied by malls. Fields of cantaloupes are now fields of cars on baking asphalt surfaces.

I used to keep bees in a very different environment from the one we now ‘enjoy’. I prefer the Phoenix I remember to much of what has replaced it. I believe we can have an urban environment that is much more attractive than our present predicament.  Local production of food would help, enormously.

Wen-Ling and I went to this farmers’ market expecting to pay more than what equivalent food would cost us at our local grocer’s. It seems that ‘local’ and ‘organic’ imply ‘expensive’. We were still surprised at the cost of most of the items at this market.

The market promotes itself as a ‘sustainable’ alternative. But, expensive is not sustainable. If Wen-Ling and I had to buy the bulk of our food from this market, we could make do. My food would costs would be quite high, but we could swing it. However, this is only because my income is much better these last few years.

I understand that some of the costs might be justified in a number of ways. Everyone wants to have excess income, to either save or spend. I know from personal experience how stressful it can be when the income fails to meet, or barely meets, the expenses. The farmers put in a lot of work to create the product. It’s nice to be rewarded, and very nice when the rewards are ample.

However, we paid $5 for a dozen eggs, $4 for four ounces of cheese, and $8 for eight ounces of honey. That is expensive!

Some products we didn’t buy include home-canned fruits, vegetables, and jams. I saw asparagus, carrots, and cauliflower all steeping in small glass jars, priced at $8 each. At those rates, I would be paying more than a dollar for a single spear of asparagus, or two dollars for the remains of a single carrot.

I also didn’t buy any pickles. A woman offered me a sample of her product, also priced at $8/jar. I accepted her offer, and these sweet pickles were tasty. I was intrigued, so I asked her if she grew her own cucumbers. Her response was surprising. She said she didn’t do the pickling herself. If she did, a jar would cost me $100 for the amount of work she would have to put into it.

She told me she bought jars of dill pickles from the store, drained the juices, and soaked them for a week in her own solution of sugar and spices. She then brought them to the market and sold them at a markup. That’s not my idea of home-production. That’s also not my idea of sustainable.

Several vendors were selling produce. One guy was selling mostly garlic. Another producer had a large corner booth with various bins of produce, all of it fresh. We bought our vegetables from him. But, when we tried to engage him in a little conversation about his farm, he was less than forthcoming. Perhaps he was tired. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.

I found this interesting because I used to produce honey and sell it at swap meets.  I always took time to answer questions.  I wanted to clear up misconceptions about bees, as well as to promote an understanding and an appreciation for my product.  I am more likely to pay a higher price to support a local producer if he or she is also a neighbor with whom I have a bond, even if the bond is just friendliness.

I am curious to discover how the vegetables are grown, and what techniques are used. This producer didn’t advertise himself as “organic”. And that’s fine. I might still buy if I perceive a general concern with the environment, and that non-organic applications are used judiciously.

A couple of other guys were selling vegetables, with a large sign that screamed, “Organic.” I spoke to them for a while. I wanted to know where they were growing their food. They told me, but what I was told didn’t quite add up. What I am about to say isn’t an accusation, because I don’t know. I am merely voicing my suspicions.

They have a farm inside of Phoenix proper. They lease their land, and have been on it for six months. Real-estate speculators buy raw land and sit on it until the right deal comes along. Tax rates on large properties bought under these circumstances can be quite high. These two farmers were leasing 25 acres, which might cost the owner of the land more than a hundred thousand a year in taxes. But, a lower rate is awarded to agricultural land. This is designed to not punish farmers with taxes they could never afford.

A speculator can lease out a minimum of 25 acres for agricultural use and his land is then taxed at the lower rate. These two farmers can get the use of the land for practically nothing and the landlord still makes out. It’s a good arrangement for everyone.

I am skeptical to the claims of ‘organic’, though, for the following reason. They have only been farming the land for six months, and they had beautiful, large vegetables. It takes a while to build soil fertility to the point that a variety of vegetables grow so well.

It may be that the land was farmed by someone else before they brought their operation there. In that case, there might be a lot of residual fertility in the soil from the efforts of the previous farmers. I could accept their claims to being organic under those circumstances.

The first year we dug up our garden after buying our house we had a great garden, because the lawn that previously occupied the space had been heavily fertilized by the previous owner. The next two years weren’t so good. These guys might be enjoying the same situation.

But, if the land was just an abandoned field in an urban area, I am more skeptical to their claims of being organic. You just don’t plant seeds and magically enjoy such great yields.

Like I said, this is just my skepticism, and I am in no position to know for sure.

This past Thursday, Wen-Ling and I went to another farmer’s market in Chandler after work. There was one producer left when we arrived. He had a good assortment of fruits and vegetables in plastic bins. Unlike the producers at the Phoenix market, he didn’t have prices on any of it. So I asked, “How much are these vegetables?”

“They’re all different”, he replied.

“Well, I expect that. But, how much do they cost?”, I asked again.

“Each bin is different”, he told me.

So I explained myself. “I am not going to put any of these into a bag until I know how much they cost. That way I am not surprised when you ask me for the amount. I need to know this information to decide how much I going to buy.”

He then told me how much the green bell peppers were. He seemed pissed. “And what about these red bell peppers?” In barely hidden anger he told me. Then I had to ask, “What about the broccoli?” At this point, my wife informed me that she was not buying anything from this person. We walked away empty handed. If you are selling something, basic courtesy towards your customers is not an option if you want even one sale, let alone repeat sales.

The Phoenix market was welcoming, although a bit pricey.  This guy was both expensive and surly. 

As we discussed it last Saturday night over dinner, I struggled with the issue.  I want to support local agriculture.  But, I also want affordable food.  I understand that these people want to be rewarded for their work.  What is a fair reward, though?

I have always had my own desire to have a farm.  Years ago after I returned from the Peace Corps, I bought ten acres in Amado.  I was building a beekeeping business while teaching.  I didn’t have a lot of money, and so I was roughing it.  I bought raw land and put an old trailer on it.  I drove an old pickup, and didn’t have much in the way of personal posessions.  I was in it for the love of it.

These people, I hope, are in it for the love of it, too.  But, when the prices are high it makes me wonder whether they are in it more for the money.  It makes me wonder what their lifestyles are like. 

My wife and I currently own a used home.  We furnish our home with discarded furniture.  We don’t own a television.  We have one working computer.  The previous computer was used for eight years before it was replaced.  We drive one car.  I ride a bike to work most days.  If these people are living more extravagantly, I hesitate to pay those prices.

I also know from personal experience that farmers’ markets in other countries aren’t so expensive.  Incomes in those countries are also lower.  Are higher prices justified in a wealthier economy?  Is it merely supply and demand?  I saw other people buying.  Were they buying because they like the freshness of the produce?  Were they buying for the novely?  Or, were they buying out of a conviction that spending this money was a better investment in the community?

I might need to go back to find out.  But, in the mean time, I will also be looking for alternatives to expensive local produce.

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