In an economy that is unhappily nicknamed “The Great Recession,” it’s refreshing to know that, despite scores of gloomy prognostications, at least one segment of our economy has actually been growing: America’s Farmers Markets. According to this recent article from Business Week, farmers markets grew nationwide by nearly 10% in the past year alone. Ten percent annual growth, my Slow Food and Locavore friends, is an incredibly encouraging number.
With unprecedented access to emerging and established farmers markets, small farmers can finally envision an economically sustainable future for themselves. For decades, growers have had little other choice than to rely upon unpredictable commodity prices for their livelihoods. Farmers would start each season with the optimism of a strong, productive year, but never truly knew what they would be paid come harvest time. At the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, traders shout to one another across the crowded floor, bidding up corn or driving down the price of pork bellies with complete disregard for the farmers raising the crops. If the past sixty years have taught us anything, it’s that sustainable wages must go hand in hand with sustainable farming practices, or despite all good intentions, the enterprise will most likely fail.
Can you imagine showing up for work each day for a year, logging countless hours across the course of twelve months, then when you finally receive your paycheck, you open the envelope to find nothing inside? This is what happened to our farm, and many others, for an entire generation: commodity paychecks weren’t enough to offset our bills. Now, the enormous expansion of farmers markets is giving some of these farmers -small and organic producers, especially- a viable way to opt out, increasing the odds of earning a living wage for themselves.
(From a personal standpoint, our attendance at farmers markets for the past fifteen years probably saved our family farm. If you are a farmers market customer, thank you. The money you spend goes straight back to the farm where you bought your food, an investment that not only financially sustains your farmer, but helps ensure that you’ll be able to purchase your favorite tomatoes, free range eggs and zucchini bread year after year.)
Of course, corporate America is well aware of these burgeoning farmers market numbers. For many years, farmers markets were only a blip on the radar screens of national supermarkets, cultural anomalies that probably seemed like temporary trends. However, as stores like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s began to slowly gain traction—and farmers markets not only stuck around but actually began to expand—traditional supermarkets sat up and took notice. These days, even my local box store supermarkets have organic and local sections, something I never could have imagined five years ago.
Traditionally, supermarket products have begged for attention by being ‘New and Improved!’ or ‘Now… with 25% more Cheese!’ Aisles were stocked with flashy claims and bright packaging, food so anonymous and aseptic that they employed cartoon mascots as their spokesbunnies. Those days certainly aren’t over yet, as a trip to any supermarket will quickly demonstrate. However, organic—and increasingly local—foods are making strong inroads into chain stores nationwide. Be careful out there, folks: the next time you walk into a conventional grocery store, you might actually be able to smell a local peach.
Times are undoubtedly changing. Grocery stores have recognized the appeal of food raised with transparency and identity, and are enacting change from within the confines of their cinderblock fortresses. While the optimist in me wants to say, “Hey! They’re finally getting it… good for them!” the businessman in me says, “This is a classic corporate response to eroding market share.” Like most things in life, though, the truth is probably located somewhere in the middle: grocery stores recognize the undeniable popularity of farmers markets, and are suddenly willing to tweak their protocols just enough to make sure they don’t get left behind.
Farmers are often perceived as curmudgeons, resistant to change, suspicious of newfangled ways (who came up with the word ‘newfangled’ anyway, and why is this word always associated with curmudgeons? At some point, the phrase ‘newfangled’ must have been newfangled itself, right? But I digress…), but I, for one, am delighted to see nationwide supermarkets adopting these changes. Not only does this open the door for even more farmers to have economically stable outlets for their produce, but this shifting policy further endorses the spirit of farmers markets themselves. It was Charles Colton who famously said “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” but I’ve always liked Oscar Wilde’s twist on fame a little better: “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.”
There’s no denying it: we’re being imitated, and we’re being talked about. What does this mean for us die-hard, long time foodies who have known all along the many benefits of shopping at farmers markets? I think we should all take a moment—just a moment—to congratulate ourselves. Okay, moment over! Now, let’s start thinking about the future. We know that when our core values carry over into shopping habits, it turns the heads of national CEOs. Armed with this power to enact positive change, it makes a farmer wonder: what can we do next?
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