May 7, 2010

Keeping the farmer in farmers markets

farmers marketPhoto: Natalie MaynorEarlier this week, the Wall Street Journal aired a bit of dirty laundry that was hiding out in local food's hamper -- the ongoing fight over who gets to sell in farmers markets. Many markets require that sellers be actual growers, rather than "resellers" of some form or another.

At a certain level, this makes perfect sense: despite the dropped apostrophe, they're not called farmers markets for nothing. And once you open the door to resellers, you also open the door to things like "farmwashing" -- sellers falsely claiming they grew their wares -- or even California produce beating out locally grown products at, say, a Wisconsin farmers market.

Of course, the heart of the WSJ piece is a nasty fight over price, as it always seems to be with food:

Local farmer Ronald Waege, who grows his own apples and blueberries just outside of town, says resellers are buying up produce at an auction and peddling it here, sometimes undercutting his own prices. Mr. Waege, who insists he's looking after the interests of consumers, has prodded the Tomah City Council to decide whether or not to ban resellers from the market. The council plans to vote on the issue next month.

Resellers, some of whom have been operating here for years, are furious. Ralph Wendland, a vendor who grows his apples but also resells pumpkins, made "verbal threats to bash my head in while swinging a cane in my direction," Mr. Waege wrote in a letter to city officials in January.

Mr. Wendland says he told Mr. Waege, "if he didn't keep his nose out of my business, I'd knock him on his a--."

Whose business is it?

Good question. And we'd best answer it soon, because the numbers of farmers markets are exploding. Many people think that the USDA's 5,000+ number is far under the actual total: farmers market managers should go to the USDA's site and fill out their survey so we can know how many markets are really out there. Plus, as consumers -- especially parents with young children -- continue to shift their buying away from supermarkets, it's important to remember that many farmers markets do far more than sell produce.

Direct farmer-to-consumer sales are the quickest, easiest, and cleanest way to increase farmers' share of consumer spending. Right now that's a mere 7 cents on the dollar. And farmers markets also represent a relatively easy way to improve access to healthy foods in low-income neighborhoods. While more and more farmers markets accept food stamps, groups like Wholesome Wave provide "coupons" that then double their buying power. Ladies and gentlemen: I give you subsidized vegetables!! And though that particular program is privately funded, there's no reason that the USDA couldn't in its wisdom decide to launch a similar one on its own. Farmers markets are, in a word, important.


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