Shane Commentary

      

Farmers Markets Gain Popularity

Aug 15, 2012

The current Administration has embarked on a policy of promoting small family farms and encouraging local consumption of food products.  First Lady, Michelle Obama has linked consumption of locally grown fruits and vegetables to her campaign opposing obesity.  The USDA, through its “Know Your Farmer Know Your Food” program provides grants to facilitate distribution and sales of locally-produced food.  The success of these initiatives is evidenced by the growth in numbers of registered farmers’ markets.  There are now 7,850 venues compared to 4,350 in 2006.

Purchasing produce and food items at markets is foreign to the U.S. purchasing habits of urbanites and suburbanites.  Trendy books such as The Omnivore’s Dilemma  by Michael Pollan extols the virtues of “eating small, eating local” and struck a chord among the affluent with disposal income and available time to select their requirements from a limited supply of seasonal products on Saturdays and Sundays. 

The principle of buying local to support sustainability is a myth.  The Locavore’s Dilemma: In Praise of the 10,000 Mile Diet authored by Dr. Pierre Desrochers of the University of Toronto adds to the debate by presenting facts and figures which show the superior sustainability derived from  intensive production of produce, dairy, eggs and meat.  A comparison of prices for similar products sold at farmers’ markets, corner groceries, boutique stores and conventional supermarkets clearly illustrates the advantages of intensive agriculture and mass distribution

In our own industry, in-line egg production units with dedicated feed mills, processing and packaging can deliver fresh, wholesome, certified SE-free product to the consumer at a cost far lower than eggs from small subsistence farms. Other examples can be cited such as production of green produce both in the U.S. and Mexico.  Importation of intensively-cultivated fruits and vegetables from southern hemisphere nations during winter months ensures a range and variety of products for purchase in supermarkets.

A number of proponents for farmers’ markets cite the success and acceptability of markets in Europe as an example to be emulated.  There are a significant number of reasons why the European model is difficult to replicate in the U.S. Firstly, the agriculture system in the EU supports small family farms.

Despite social engineering there is a marked disparity in productivity, cost and total output of small units compared to large and medium-sized intensive farms. Effectively 80% of food consumed in Europe is produced on 20% of the farms supplemented by imports from intensive operations in Asia and the America’s. 

     

Attractive display of produce from many nations at the central Market in Budapest



Fresh eggs on display in Central Market in Budapest

     

Urban dwellers in small towns in Europe frequently do not own vehicles and purchase their food requirements on a daily basis from available markets.  This contrasts to the U.S. practice of purchasing a week’s worth of groceries on a single visit to a supermarket or club store. Our pattern of buying is frequently a consequence of two-income families which value time at a premium.

From personal observations farmers’ markets in central Europe are far better organized than in the U.S.  In most cities such as Budapest, a modern market building occupies a central position in the town adjacent to public transportation, where food products are displayed and purchased by both urban residents and commuters.  In small towns, central squares have been set aside for markets.  Farmers use trailers equipped with refrigeration and display coolers, counters and shelving to minimize set-up time and to ensure an acceptable standard of hygiene for perishables.

Like many fads farmers’ markets can be regarded as a trend which has probably reached its apex and will continue to satisfy the needs and desires of a clearly defined demographic.

Attempting to radically change the food purchasing habits of U.S. consumers away from the convenience, cost and variety available in supermarkets is an exercise in futility.