While the farm bill wallows about in Congress, awaiting reconciliation between House and Senate versions, some state and local governments are making their own smart food policies, investing public resources in the worthwhile goal of rebuilding local food systems.
A piece in last week’s New York Times food section reminded me of that happy fact. The article, by Kim Severson, details an effort to build a permanent, in-door, year-round farmers market facility for New York City. I hope the effort succeeds — and I hope the facility is farmer-owned. One thing this country needs is more farmer-owned retail space, so that farmers can more than a pittance of the consumer food dollar from the clutches of retail giants like Wal-Mart.
But what really got me going was something Severson mentions in the middle of the article, a development that I had somehow missed.
The infrastructure for getting local farm products into the city is about to change drastically. In a speech in December Gov. Eliot Spitzer told the New York Farm Bureau that ground would be broken this year on a wholesale farmers’ market somewhere near the massive wholesale food complex in the Hunts Point section of the Bronx.
Here’s why that’s fantastic news.
Currently, to sell direct to NYC residents, nearby farmers haul their stuff in from the countryside to the city’s far-flung farmers markets, which typically take place on Saturday mornings. (The flagship Union Square market goes Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday.)
And while the markets are a wonderful scene for residents and a great way to form direct links between farmers and consumers in the nation’s biggest city, they also burn a tremendous amount of energy.
By that, I mean the personal energy of farmers, who have to get up at outrageous hours on Saturday morning and schlep their stuff into town; and in terms of gasoline up in smoke, as all those little trucks lurch their way into the city.
With a wholesale market, there would be a single place to haul the goods at the city’s outskirts. And large buyers like grocers, restaurants, and institutions (schools, hospitals, etc.) could more efficiently fill their orders. In economist’s terms, some of the “transaction costs” of local food would go down, making it more competitive with industrial food.
And it could also be a boon to mid-sized growers who have a little too much volume to market their wares through farmers markets, CSAs, and directly to chefs; and not quite enough to sell profitably to the big dominant grocery chains.
It’s precisely these “farmers in the middle” who really have the scale to take local food production to the next level in the U.S. But they’re also the ones who face the most economic pressure these days. As the nation’s food system consolidates and polarizes between mass-scale industrial farms and small boutique farms, mid-sized farms continue to fail in steady numbers.
Projects like city wholesale farmers markets are key to reversing that trend. As the Times article puts it:
A big, modern warehouse with good storage facilities and a steady stream of buyers could assure schools, hospitals and grocery stores of a reliable supply of local produce. And it could finally give local farmers a new way to bring their produce to town, particularly those with midsize farms of 50 to 200 acres. Selling wholesale could work for growers who are too small to make direct deals with big chains or not specialized enough for a stall at one of the city’s 46 Greenmarkets.
This development bolsters my impression that Gov. Spitzer — whose recent troubles I have not followed closely — must be doing a great job since he’s pissing off so many people.
In New York’s vibrant community-gardening scene — of which I was once a proud member — Spitzer is beloved for his work during his days as state attorney general in the late 1990s. Then, a thuggish little man called Rudy Giuliani lorded over the city, and declared one day by fiat that he would auction off the city’s community gardens, since they represented a form of socialism.
Spitzer faced him down, and — buoyed by a potent grassroots garden movement — ultimately forced a deal that saved most of the gardens from the bulldozers of Giuliani’s developer cronies. Unhappily, they did get their paws on many fantastic gardens in some of the city’s poorest and most greenspace-starved neighborhoods, like Brownsville and East New York.