Farmers’ markets: a local ingredient in the global food system

farmers-marketsIt is late Saturday morning of an unusually hot summer day, and I am going on a field trip with one of my study participants. As usually, my hands are busy with a pen and a notepad, and my eyes are ready to observe the very minute details of my research subject’s shopping activity. What’s different, however, is that this time we will not wander around a supermarket trying to navigate our way down the long aisles, countless shelves and confusing labels – instead, we are in a sun-lit open air market with 20 stalls offering a diversity of fresh fruits and vegetables, meats, cheeses, honey, home-made chutneys and jams, baked goods – all accompanied by live performance by local musicians and lively chatter of shoppers and vendors alike. Headingley’s farmers’ market comes alive every second Saturday of the month when local producers fill their stalls with fresh, local, often organic, foodstuff to be sold to the regulars who come to buy their favourite goods from preferred vendors, occasional shoppers who pop in for a gourmet treat or an artisan gift, and first-time visitors, like myself.

Farmers markets are a trendy phenomenon. Far from being a novelty, FMs have become especially attractive in the most recent years due to growing consumer concerns over food safety and traceability, healthy nutrition, as well as environmental and social wellbeing. Within the wider movement of resistance to industrialised food production, they are playing an increasingly desirable role as alternative distribution channels offering fresh, locally grown foods and contributing to economic and environmental sustainability (Ling & Link, 2007). Research has been done on both vendors’ and consumers’ motivations to participate in the farmers’ markets. For small-scale producers, who are simply economically unviable on the wholesale market, FMs are the main means to reach customers, sell at retail level pricing, as well as obtain visibility in public settings and advertise the produce (Griffin & Frongillo, 2003). However, vendors rank social benefits of selling directly to consumers just as high as economic profit – opportunity for social interaction with shoppers and fellow stallholders is consistently found on the list of producers’ perceived benefits of farmers’ markets (Hughes & Mattson’s, 1995; Lyson et al., 1995; Griffin & Frongillo, 2003). For consumers, FMs have long been a source of fresh, high-quality, local, and good value produce (Wolf, 1997; Sommer et al., 1984 cited in Govindasamy et al., 1998; Wolf et al., 2005). But social aspect appears to be equally important: personal contact with food producers and social networking opportunities are cited as a key motive (Govindasamy et al., 1998) and a major dimension of consumer experiences of shopping at FMs (Youngs & Holden, 2002).

farmers_market_peachesIndeed, the “community feel” of farmers’ markets is in stark contrast with the alienating setting of supermarkets deliberately designed so that to maximize consumer-products interactions and minimize consumer-consumer or consumer-salesperson encounters (La Trobe, 2001 cited in Szmigin, 2003). Unsurprisingly then, consumers are four times more likely to have a social interaction with a stallholder than a supermarket employee (Sommer et al., 1981). However, this implies the availability of adequate time to be spent on building social capital – in fact, supermarket shopping experience which is “one of alienation rather than communication” (Szmigin, 2003, p. 545) may well suit pressed-for-time shoppers. This leads us to consider the demographic profile of a regular FM visitor: according to research, it is more likely to be a college-educated woman over 50 years with above average disposable income and often retired (Govindasamy et al., 1998; Holloway & Kneafsey, 2000; Youngs & Holden, 2002). (Coincidentally or not, the research participant I went with perfectly fits the description). At the same time, one of the organisers of Headingley’ farmers’ market who I spoke to on the day, commented on an increasing number of students drawn to the stalls during term time. The diversification of FM’s customer base might be a reflection of the most recent consumption trends: as I mentioned in the beginning, there is a growing consumer awareness of the health, environmental and social implications of eating choices, and the interest in alternative ways of food provisioning is spreading to include demographic groups and social circumstances broader than time and money-rich pensioners. As farmers’ markets are increasingly seen as a space of resistance, a way to boycott supermarkets, and a means to support green consumption (Szmigin, 2003), they progressively attract activist consumers who do not wish to partake in the industrial food system.

Despite all economic, social and environmental benefits, farmers markets seem to be a somewhat paradoxical phenomenon. What once used to be the most traditional food sales outlet is now regarded as an alternative way of food provisioning and a novel shopping experience. What emanated from consumer desire for lower-cost, simple produce has become a distribution channel for high-priced artisan, specialty and niche market goods – “yuppie chow” for the elite consumer. As Link and Ling (2007) justly claim, affordability of produce and inclusion of less well-off population is one of they key issues every farmers’ market committee should be addressing. It remains to be seen if economically healthy, community-friendly and environmentally benign farmers’ markets can score high on social justice as well.

References

Govindasamy, R., Zurbriggen, M., Italia, J., Adelaja, A., Nitzsche, P., & Van Vranken, R. (1998). Farmers markets: Consumer trends, preferences, and characteristics. Parking, 52(28.3), 16-0.

Griffin, M. R., & Frongillo, E. A. (2003). Experiences and perspectives of farmers from Upstate New York farmers’ markets. Agriculture and Human values, 20(2), 189-203.

Holloway, L., & Kneafsey, M. (2000). Reading the space of the farmers’ market: a preliminary investigation from the UK. Sociologia Ruralis, 40(3), 285-299.

Hughes, M. E. & Mattson, R. H. (1995). Farmers markets in Kansas: A profile of vendors and market organization. Report of Progress 658. Manhattan: Kansas State University, Agricultural Experiment Station.

Link, A., & Ling, C. (2007, June 18). Farmers’ markets and local food systems. Retrieved from http://crcresearch.org/case-studies/crc-case-studies/farmers-markets-and-local-food-systems

Lyson, T. A., Gillespie, G. W., & Hilchey, D. (1995). Farmers’ markets and the local community: Bridging the formal and informal economy. American Journal of Alternative Agriculture, 10(03), 108-113.

Sommer, R., Herrick, J., & Sommer, T. R. (1981). The behavioral ecology of supermarkets and farmers’ markets. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 1(1), 13-19.

Szmigin, I., Maddock, S., & Carrigan, M. (2003). Conceptualising community consumption: farmers’ markets and the older consumer. British Food Journal, 105(8), 542-550.

Wolf, M. M. (1997). A target consumer profile and positioning for promotion of the direct marketing of fresh produce: A case study. Journal of Food Distribution Research, 28(3), 11-17.

Wolf, M. M., Spittler, A., & Ahern, J. (2005). A profile of farmers’ market consumers and the perceived advantages of produce sold at farmers’ markets. Journal of Food Distribution Research, 36(1), 192-201.

Youngs, J., & Holden, C. (2002). NW Consumer Direct Initiatives–Farmers’ Markets and Farm Outlets. Northwest Food Alliance in Collaboration with Myerscough College.

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