I usually avoid a fight in which you’re bound to lose (because it is really hard to change a person’s opinion with your own opinion). However, I do get riled up when people make uneducated claims about farmers’ markets and CSAs. I’ve heard plenty in my three years as a CSA host. Then a few weeks ago, I was a guest at a luncheon in which people disparaged the prices at our local farmers’ market, including the statement, “The prices at my daughter’s farmers’ market are cheaper.”
On my way to the Headhouse Square Farmers’ Market in Philadelphia on Sunday morning, I was still fuming about the conversation, so I decided to seek some knowledgeable answers.
Nicole Sugarman of Weaver’s Way Farm said that the label, “farmers’ market,” does not mean that everything sold is from a local farmer nor are the growing practices necessarily organic and sustainable. A farmer from Lancaster County said that his neighbors have been known to truck in produce from larger farms down south, presumably with egregious farming and labor practices. Finally, Katy Wich, the Manager of the Farmers’ Market program of The Food Trust, said that there are other complex issues involved.
First, what are a farmer’s labor costs? The Asian research scientist of Queen’s Farm sells his wife’s lovingly tended vegetables and his young daughter helps him on market days. Another farm employs college interns, who’re only paid a small stipend. The Amish farmers often rely on family to plant and harvest. I‘ve visited Tom Culton on his farm and, while he is touted as a “superstar” farmer, I saw how hard he works and under what conditions.
Second, what is the time frame for a crop? When a farmer is desperate to get his produce to market such as before spoilage or a storm, he/she might resort to a farmer’s auction such as the one in Leola in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. There, the farmer is paid a pittance — such as $6 for a crate of eggplant — for his season of hard work. There, middlemen buy the produce and re-sell it at a profit. The customers at a discount store such as Produce Junction will save money, but at the expense of the farmers. I also recall reading about the beleaguered dairy farmers in Japan after the tsunami this spring when they were told that they couldn’t sell their milk, because of radiation contamination. The farmers spilt all of the milk because they had no market.
Finally, what should a vegetable cost? How could we complain when we’ve never sweated for our food? Recently on NPR, an anthropologist spoke about how our bodies have evolved for the hunter/gatherer lifestyle, not for the sedentary life of a technologically-focused world. We should be on our feet for several hours a day, looking for food. The only looking we have to do is in the fridge.
I shop at a farmers’ market for the freshest produce, to keep within the season’s offerings, and to support our local farmers. It is not to save money. Remember the adage that we get what we pay for? Where would we be, if we only had to rely on industrial farms? A captive audience for the next E. coli outbreak, that’s where.
Hannah Lee writes from her home in suburban Philadelphia about issues that engage her.