Market Places

I am sharing these photos from a couple of trips I made to Taiwan with Wen-Ling. They are of a market place in the town of Sijhih, just east of Taipei. This market might be my favorite place in Taiwan.

Every morning vendors set up in an alley about a half mile from my mother-in-law’s home. They sell every type of food imaginable, from baked goods to fresh vegetables to freshly caught fish.

“Fresh-caught” isn’t a marketing phrase. The photo showing the fish with their tails tied to their gill-flaps is about more than just presentation. It is also to prevent these live fish from flopping off the table. The shrimp you buy are still moving, too.

Vegetables are all local. There is one garden/farm just around the corner from the market, next to a laundromat, in the middle of the city. It occupies maybe a half acre, but probably less. Lying in a ravine, all sorts of vegetables are grown there, along with tropical fruits like mango, papaya and some trees I don’t recognize. Other nearby farms also provide produce.

Along with the produce, vendors sell shoes and clothing, toiletries, and knick-knacks. The vending is all done between the hours of about 6 am and noon. By one o’clock it has reverted to a residential area. The vendors are basically setting up in the entrance ways to homes. Most homes in the city occupy three to four floors. The ground floor typically has a garage-like front with a living-room behind it. Bedrooms are usually on the third and fourth floors. The kitchen will also be found on the first or second floor.

I love the intimacy of this market place, the way neighbors easily meet and mix. I don’t understand the local alliances, the politics, and the personal tensions that exist. I bought some pastries one morning and brought them back to my mother-in-law. She wanted to know who I had purchased them from. It turns out I bought them from a woman my mother-in-law doesn’t do business with. None-the-less, we did all share the food. Perhaps it would have tasted better if it had been prepared by my mother-in-law’s friend.

I share these photos to highlight the differences between the typical American corporate market place and the traditional Chinese market. The Chinese market sells local food. If we consider the notion of degrees of separation, the typical customer at a Chinese market is separated from the producer of the food by two or maybe three degrees. In other words, the vendor may be the farmer who grows the chickens or the vegetables. Or, she may be a middleman between the customer and the fisherman.

How many degrees of separation are there between the American customer and the farmer who produces our food? We have the people who work at the grocery store. There are truck drivers connecting the grocery with one or more wholesale buyers operating cold-storage warehouses. Then there are the farmers. It may be four or five degrees of separation.

In Taiwan much of the food is probably produced within a forty mile radius of where it is purchased. In the U.S. the radius is probably a thousand miles, maybe more. In fact, some of our food may even come from Taiwan!

It is true that in America we can enjoy fresh vegetables and fruits throughout the year. Our food is relatively inexpensive. No one is deprived. But there are environmental costs associated with such a diet. And there are economic vulnerabilities. For instance, both Taiwan and America depend heavily on foreign oil. But, if our oil supplies were cut for an extended period how likely would starvation be in American vs. Taiwan? My guess is that Taiwan would fare much better.

In any case, my real motivation is to point out that there is an aesthetic component to the Chinese culture of food that is sorely lacking in America. And, it’s not specific to China and Taiwan. India has it, as does almost any developing nation. Our food culture here in America is an industrial culture, heavy on engineering, but largely lacking in beauty. I would gladly give up my local Fry’s supermarket if I could trade it in for an alleyway of vendors near my home.


Wal-Mart — The good, the bad, and the ugly

Wal-Mart is using its martket clout to keep food prices low. This article mentions three methods. I like this one:

Shrink the goods. Ever wonder why that cereal box is only two-thirds full? Foodmakers love big boxes because they serve as billboards on store shelves. Wal-Mart has been working to change that by promising suppliers that their shelf space won’t shrink even if their boxes do. As a result, some of its vendors have reengineered their packaging. General Mills’ (GIS, Fortune 500) Hamburger Helper is now made with denser pasta shapes, allowing the same amount of food to fit into a 20% smaller box at the same price. The change has saved 890,000 pounds of paper fiber and eliminated 500 trucks from the road, giving General Mills a cushion to absorb some of the rising costs.

This makes eminent sense. Why drive trucks that are only partially full? Denser packaging saves money and hurts no one. It’s a win-win situation.

The second method, cutting out the middleman, is a common business tactic. Instead of buying its brand-name coffee “from a supplier, which buys from a cooperative of growers, which works with a roaster”, they go directly to the cooperative. So, if costs go up their “efficiencies” allow them to keep the retail price lower.

Is this a good thing? I have blogged about my growing support for buying locally-grown food. I have also voiced my complaints about the high prices at some of the farmers’ markets here in Phoenix. I want to go a little further by pointing out that low-price is not my ultimate measure of whether to purchase a product.

Wal-Mart does have low prices. But, I am one of those shoppers who recognizes the social costs imposed by big-box stores. I willingly pay a higher price to support local businesses. Besides, I can’t stand being in a Wal-Mart, or most other corporate retailers. There is something deeply depressing about Wal-Mart. Its not just the blue branding. It’s written on the faces of the employees and shoppers.

So, if Wal-Mart cuts out the middleman in order to keep costs lower, it may mean you pay slightly less for your coffee. But, you will pay in other ways. They force out local businesses. They pay low wages. And they are just plain ugly.

The third method employed by Wal-Mart to keep prices low is to buy locally. “By sourcing more produce locally – it now sells Wisconsin-grown yellow corn in 56 stores in or near Wisconsin – it is able to cut shipping costs.” This turns out to be a bad thing, though. The article goes on to describe how Wal-Mart is forcing these local suppliers to eat the higher costs of production. In other words, the local growers are not able to pass their costs on to the consumer.

So, although Wal-Mart is buying some of its food locally, they may be doing local producers no real favors.

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.

Breyers Ice Cream Scam

I just went to the local Fry’s store because my wife asked me nicely if I would go buy some ice cream. It wasn’t on my mind, but I thought, “Why not?”

I assume you are aware that most ice cream brands have for some time been offering ice cream in 1.75 quart-sized containers. Instead of raising their prices, they lower the quantity they sell. Same thing, but it burns me all the same. I want to buy ice cream in a half-gallon size, just like when I was a kid.

Well, I went to the Fry’s and made a beeline for the ice-cream isle. The Breyers was on sale! In fact, most of the Breyers was gone. I found a container of neapolitan, looking so lonely on this nearly bare shelf. But, when I picked it up something seemed amiss. The container seemed smaller. Not smaller than a half gallon. Smaller than 1.75 quarts!

They did it again, the fuckers! They shrank the container to 1.5 quarts! Give me a half-gallon, for gosh sakes, and put an appropriate price on it. I would rather they be up front about the price inflation, than to take the more deceptive path of slightly shrinking the container and hoping I won’t notice.

I was so angry, I bought the cheaper house brand because at least it had 1.75 quarts. Take notice Breyers!

It’s like potato chips. They sell these snack sized chips out of machines. Used to be they had 2.5 ounces, then 2 ounces. Then they dropped it to 1.5 ounces. It really gets me angry when they don’t shrink the size of the package, they just put less in the package. All the while, the price has been going up. 25 cents…50 cents…75 cents…85 cents! Now, they have 1 ounce packs of potato chips for 85 cents where I work! That’s when I started packing more fruit with my lunches. I also began to buy snacks ahead of time. The last thing I want to do is put a buck in a machine, get back a few cents, and get a bag of chips — no, make that a bag with a chip. “Chips” is plural, and by definition needs to come in a bag bigger than an ounce.

My wife and I have been becoming more and more interested in the concept of local food, and eating locally. I know that complaining about junk food is pretty far from eating locally. But, it got me thinking. We have a vegetable garden and fruit trees. I began to bake bread because of the rising costs. Maybe I will start making my own ice cream. Take notice food industry! I will find someone who is raising milk locally. Maybe even goat’s milk. And I’ll make my own ice cream, rather than put up with your deceptive packaging, your inflated prices, the shitty conditions under which most of the cows are raised, the growth hormones you feed to your cows and refuse to put on your labels.

It’s not like I eat ice cream that often, either.

Is anyone raising goats or cows near the Tempe area? I would like to buy some milk and try my hand at making my own ice cream. Seriously, if you know someone from which I can buy some locally produced milk, I want to give this a try.