Farmer's Market, or Buyer's Market?

I read Michael Ruhlman's blog regularly for genuine insight and snarky commentary. I love that he goes out of his way to not only acknowledge when he's wrong, but to stand vocally and emphatically corrected.

In this installment, a casual mention of an article in the Cleveland Plain Dealer noting that our general assumption of a farmers' market is that of cheaper produce. Mr. Parsons, of course, set him straight.

One part of the Plain Dealer article that struck me is that the pricing of farmers' market produce was 28% higher than that of supermarket produce. Rather than being cheaper, it was considerably more expensive, on a percentage basis.

I suppose our (or at least my) assumption that farmers' markets would be lower stems from the prices you get out in the countryside as you drive by their farm. It's you that's incurring the expense of fuel and time to hunt down such bargains.

I've always found the charm to be, not of lower prices, but of higher quality and cutting out the middleman. (Middlemen are notorious and highly unpopular regardless of the setting.) By purchasing carrots from someone with dirt under their nails (put there by having pulled your newly purchased carrots out of the ground), you have shortened the path food takes in getting to you. There is also a more direct link between you and the person that grows (or at least picks) your food out of the ground.

Farmers' markets tend to, in my experience anyway, thrive most in areas with massive amounts of disposable income. My home in Mountain View, California, is about a mile from a massive farmers' market held near the train station downtown. Mountain View, of course, is also home to Google, a generator of several billionaires and more than a few millionaires. If their budget for the market that week was, say, $20.00, they would end up spending $25.60 instead. Hardly a deal-breaker. They're supporting the farmers directly, cutting out that pesky middleman, and getting a better product to boot.

And then there's the darker side...

I was having dinner, not surprisingly, while seated at a bar (Zucca in downtown Mountain View) when a gentleman sat next to me. He was was quickly recognized and acknowledged by several members of the staff including the owner himself. While chatting with various employees, there was some utterance about his farm. Thinking I may have misheard what was going on, I listened a bit more intently. Sure enough, farming was mentioned again.

I had to ask... "You own a farm?"

He did.

"And what do you farm?"

"Kiwi's".

We began chatting and I mentioned the concept of buying locally, etc. since NOT buying locally means that you're burning oil in various flavors, to get food from one place to another, forcing the farmers to pick fruits and vegetables before they're ready, etc.

"The funniest thing is that Japan and Korea are our biggest customers. They especially want the 'perfect' spectimens and they will pay handsomely for them. I can sell the cream of the crop to them for maybe 4-5 times the price people in the states would be willing to pay."

This is a concept I'd never even imagined. While consumers are being taught to buy locally, farmers are seeing much more lucrative deals overseas. I can, apparently, get "better" produce from this man 4000 miles away than I can at the local market.

He also mentioned another concept my naive little mind has a hard time with. "The kiwis we grow are patented and we're growing them under license. They're all clones of a single plant. In fact, all of the fruit is sterile. You can't grow another kiwi from one of ours."

It would take some researching to determine if sterility is an unexpected (though presumably welcome) side effect to the cloning process, or if this an example of "genes as intellectual property".

Presumably it would be very difficult to convince the Japanese to not buy fruit flown in from the US (and it would certainly put a dent in our farming economy, though the flown fruit is the prime quality so we're talking about relatively small amounts), but ultimately it's better for everyone if we buy as close to home as we can get. And, yes, that means we'll have to do without asparagus in December.

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