Farmers markets and local agriculture: age-old systems for the future
We often think that farmers markets are products of our times as they spring up in cities and small towns across the country. Truth is, a farmers market is the traditional way of selling agricultural produce around the world.
The really nice aspect of this transaction is that the farmer receives just compensation for his product and the eater can be assured the product is fresh, local, and grown in a manner that is acceptable to all. If these criteria are not met, the consumer can look for another farmer whose products better suit his or her needs.
After the industrialization of agriculture, farmers still sold at farmers markets, but it was just a matter of time before supermarkets were developed and farmers started selling to large companies that moved food all over the world; many Americans stopped planting gardens because it was so much easier to get “everything” at the store.
We certainly have gained something through the globalized food system: more variety, foods we cannot grow in cold climates, and, of course, cheap food that is mass-produced by underpaid farmers and farm workers. Some good news, some bad. I certainly like coffee and chocolate, but I want to know the growers and workers were paid fair wages and that the crops were grown in an environmentally-responsible manner. I would like to be sure all the food I need to buy meets those same standards, whether imported or locally grown.
So, we come back to farmers markets — local, fair, green, and affordable. I am, as you can tell, a big fan of farmers markets and it’s not just because we are vendors at the farmers market in Madison, Wisconsin. I, too, can get vegetables that don’t grow well in our garden, as well as pork, eggs, fruit, chicken, and lamb. I know all the growers personally, where they live, their children, and we get to enjoy each others’ company every Saturday morning. True, getting up at 3:30 a.m. to get to the market isn’t always so much fun, nor are those occasional cold or rainy Saturdays when few customers show up.
Understandably, not everyone feels the same about farmers markets. One of our customers, who we see very infrequently, showed up with his wife the other day and said going to the market involved three of his least favorite things: getting up early, shopping, and crowds. Well, to each his own.
While the supermarket may eliminate getting up early, it still involves shopping and crowds and has little to offer in the way of fresh, local, or fair food. Affordable, yes, but we know the affordability of mainstream food relies on low-wage farmers, and industrial farming practices that in turn rely on heavy use of chemicals, large-scale animal production, and hidden costs to the environment.
We also know that the nutritional content of that supermarket food has been in steady decline for decades. We know most of our winter vegetables are imported and possibly grown in a manner that is not healthy, fair, or green. Even the USDA, which touts our food as the safest in the world, (despite dramatically increasing numbers of food poisoning incidents) is critical of the declining nutritional content.
According to the USDA, Americans are increasingly deficient in calcium, potassium, magnesium, and vitamins A, C, D, and E. This lack of vitamins and minerals in our diet is indicative of depleted soils world wide, caused by industrial farming practices. A comparison of today’s soil mineral content across the world with that of 100 years ago shows an average decline in mineral levels of roughly 80 percent. No wonder supermarket food is lacking in nutrition!
Another statistic from the USDA’s Economic Research Service indicates that if all Americans were to eat in accordance with the dietary guidelines establish by USDA, we would need an additional 14.1 million acres for fruit and vegetable production and would be short 111 billion lbs. of milk per year. Granted, Americans will never eat according to the USDA guidelines, which are probably too heavy on milk and meat and way too short on vegetable consumption. Still, even the USDA concedes we are a food deficit nation; globalization is apparently not working, for we depend on the rest of the world to feed us while many of those countries are starving.
While the practices of the industrial “Green Revolution” did increase food production, it appears it did little for food quality. Industrial production of the cheap food that fills our supermarkets is slowly starving us. It all adds up: food safety scares, declining food quality, the world food crisis — all these abysmal failures of food production and marketing will eventually bring food production back to the local level. Local producers quickly learn that caring for the soil and making it healthy again produces healthy, nutrient-dense food for both people and animals.
Could we be entering a renaissance in food production and eating? Many think we are, for many small reasons that together add up to the overwhelming conclusion that we can no longer ship our food 1,500 miles or more from farm to table; industrial farming has crested the hill and is on the downhill slide.
Oil will never be cheap again and climate change has made world food production very uncertain. Developing countries can produce more food that is more appropriate to their cultures if they are allowed to use traditional production practices as opposed to industrial farming practices. Local producers worldwide know that hands-on farming affords a better way to care for the soil and produce healthy food.
Woody Allen’s 1973 movie Sleeper speculated on what the future of food might look like: from giant chickens to hose-fed, genetically engineered bananas the size of cruise missiles. I know, it’s just a movie, but Monsanto may be working on it. Forget the movies. The future of food is local.
When one farms locally, or supports local agriculture, he or she may, at first, miss the convenience of the old cheap, globalized food system. Change for the better is seldom easy, but always worth it. There will still be getting up early, shopping, and crowds, but in the end, I think, local farmers and eaters have more fun and live better for it.
Get Grist in your inbox