Politicizing the Farmers' Market

I don't understand those "No Farms, No Food" bumper stickers you see around places like Cambridge and Berkeley. Isn't it obvious? Why not "No toy factories, no toys"? "No Apple, No iPods"? "No Chickens, No Eggs"? (Or is it the other way around?) Is there a nefarious anti-farm lobby I don't know about?

It turns out that No Farms, No Food is a trademarked slogan of the American Farmland Trust, a DC-based lobbying group, and what they really mean is, No Local Farms, No Local Food.

The local food, or locavore, movement has brought together a number of trendy causes:

  • the preservation of open space, saving suburban farms from those tacky subdivisions with their CO2-spewing SUVs;
  • saving the planet from global warming caused by shipping food long distances;
  • saving the family farm from giant conglomerates;
  • saving our children from obesity through organic and healthy food campaigns like Michelle Obama's Let's Move initiative.

One visible symbol uniting these global concerns (not unlike the polar bear for global warmists) is the farmers' market -- photogenic evidence of healthy food saving the planet.

The farmers' market in the village square is an elemental part of human life that has thrived for millennia without outside help. It's not a very complicated business. Farmers need a vacant lot or an empty field where they can set up a table, and someone has to take out the garbage.

"Don't fix what ain't broke," however, is a concept foreign to government and non-profit bureaucrats, who by definition create layers of self-justifying bureaucracy. The American Farmland Trust, for example, has revenues of $9.7 million, and its Form 990 lists seven employees who are well compensated for their 35 hour work weeks: their President Jon Scholl makes $258,000 a year; Assistant Treasurer Victoria Edwards $177,000, and on down to Dennis Nuxoll, Director of Government Relations, at $115,000.

Promoting farmers' markets is a growth industry, with new organizations sprouting up every year. The Food Trust in Philadelphia has a budget of $5 million; Executive Director Yael Lehmann earns $107,000. Grow NYC has revenues of $6 million and pays Executive Director Marcel Van Ooyen $178,000. The Pacific Coast Farmers Market Association has revenues of $3.2 million; John Silveira, Executive Director, earns $124,500 per annum.

If you're interested in farming in the 21st century, might I suggest that you'd be better off working in an air conditioned farm trust office than breaking sod for 70 hours a week or mending fences in January.

In my local municipal government, newly re-elected City Councillor (inexplicably spelled with two L's in Cambridge) Henrietta Davis, and Chair of our Health and Environment Committee, made "Local Food and Gardening" and the farmers' market a plank of her campaign. Ms. Davis writes on her website:

Cambridge residents are passionate about their fresh fruit and vegetables. I've held a series of organizing meetings to encourage the city government to expand this effort.

Part of the reason that city government here and in many cities has to get involved "to expand this effort," is that farmers' markets are expensive.  I recently bought apples at a farmers' market for $2.79/pound.  Later in the day, I noticed local apples at Whole Foods for sixty-nine cents a pound. (The expensive ones were better, but not four times as good.)  It's more efficient to bring a tractor-trailer to a grocery store where a few employees tend to mounds of fruits and vegetables, than have each farmer spend an entire day with his pick-up truck load.  One also wonders about the carbon footprints of all those farmers driving to their farmers' markets.

Poor people therefore tend to shop at places like Market Basket or Walmart. According to Councillor Davis's reasoning, this creates a problem of inequality that must be addressed.  The solution? Require farmers' markets to accept Electronic Benefits Transfer cards from the SNAP (Food Stamp) program.  This in turn means that farmers have to purchase an EBT card reader, which cost as much as $1200 to purchase, or $50/month to lease, and train employees in recordkeeping and troubleshooting.  Wireless systems are starting to come on the market, but most EBT readers require a source of electricity.

These additional expenses don't make farmers' markets any cheaper, so Councillor Davis has helped implement "a subsidy program for low-income households" offering EBT cardholders two-for-the-price-of-one. In her words, "EBT value is doubled at most Cambridge farmers' markets." Doubling value sounds great, but this subsidy-found in many other cities--is borne by taxpayers. The farmers' market thus becomes a tool for redistribution of wealth.

While we're at it, perhaps something should be done to address the inaccessibility of expensive restaurants and clothing boutiques to low-income households.

The ideologically driven agendas listed above have led to government and non-profits promoting one form of commerce over another.  Farmers' markets take away business from grocery stores that pay the property taxes that fund city government.  Even in the many suburban communities around Boston where local farms run farm stands -- small seasonal grocery stores --  town governments spend money promoting farmers' markets, creating direct competition for their own taxpaying businesses.

Councillor Davis writes about "the inferior varieties [of tomatoes] offered in stores," but many stores sell comparable local produce. Furthermore, farmers' markets are promoted as supplying healthy food to what Michelle Obama calls "food deserts," (areas one mile from a grocery store, which according to the USDA includes the MIT campus). In the Northeast, however, farmers' markets close for the winter -- hardly a reliable means to supply food to the so-called "underserved communities."

Personally I enjoy supporting local farmers, and am happy to pay a few cents more to buy a head of lettuce picked that morning by the farmer selling it.  Farmers, however, are perfectly capable of running a farmers' market without politicians and do-gooder non-profits.  The politicization of the farmers' market is typical of the big government mentality that assumes that things work better when an outsider with superior understanding takes charge -- for a small fee, of course.

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