in a recent article a Pennsylvania researcher concluded that her rural farmers market was losing its local farmers to more affluent urban areas. In effect the farmers from Linda Aleci’s food-insecure, Lancaster community were reestablishing a food desert by taking their wares to people who would pay a premium for them. This, the article concluded, was the “dark side” of farmers markets. And, for Aleci, it revealed the need for a fair distribution of food to support the entire region.
A lot of questions were raised after reading the article. What is the reality of Aleci’s perspective, across different regions? When and how do farmers markets serve low-income residents? Are they really generally expensive? How can rural farmers serve their local areas and make money? In addition, what is Local food? How far is Local? Is 140 miles okay?
In answering at least the first few of these questions, things don’t seem to be that “dark.” Yes, there are more markets in affluent areas, but they can flourish in poorer urban areas. When they do, it is usually in conjunction with community stakeholder groups like non-profits and churches and hospitals that have obtained or have funding. Prices aren’t generally higher than those in the grocery stores. And, if you bring a chatty 6-year-old with you (who gets to know the vendors by name) you’re sure to get a discount. In fact, regarding cost perception, a study found farmers markets quite competitive in terms of prices. In one California study, on a cost per pound the farmers markets won more often than not.
Where there are regions that have higher costs at farmers markets, we’ll always assert that it’s time to focus on creating more local, urban farmers to meet the needs of low-income residents. That means, encouraging growing in private yards, yardsharing, participating in community gardens, etc.
If rural communities are becoming food deserts as farmers head to urban areas, then it’s time to look at ways to create more local opportunity for those farmers. In some farming communities like Merced (one of the top ten agricultural counties in California), people can buy grower direct at the certified farmers market using WIC/SNAP benefits, and/or opt to receive shares from local farm Community Supported Agriculture programs.
Some farms are also taking advantage of agritourism – getting some of those wiling-to-pay-top-dollar urbanites to come to them! These farmers are bringing the staycation and Local food to another level.
Did you hear the one about the city family that toured the farm? Maybe there’s a punchline rural farmers can live on.