What Could Our Economy Possibly Need More Than Subsidies for Failing Farmer's Markets

Via the Thin Green Line

The number of farmers markets in the United States has skyrocketed from a measly 340 at the outset of the 1970s to more than 7,000 today, and, according to the USDA, sales of agricultural products directly from farmer to consumer brought in a whopping $1.2 billion in 2007.  [ed- this is a trivial portion of the US agricultural market, and hardly "whopping."]

But even though many markets have started accepting food stamps, critics still charge that they are only affordable for the haves, who are much more likely to have access to other fresh foods.

A new report from the Union of Concerned Scientists puts some holes in that theory. It says that modest public funding for a couple hundred otherwise-unsuccessful farmers markets could generate to 13,500 jobs over a five-year period.

I really do not have much time, so we will have to leave aside how government-forced reallocation of capital from current productive uses to subsidizing small and failing farmers markets will be a net source of employment.

I have another point - as it turns out, we already have highly efficient farmers markets that source produce from the world's agricultural regions best suited to a particular crop and bring them in a very efficient and low-cost way to consumers, taking advantage of scale economies where they exist.  They are called "supermarkets."   If you want crops that don't take advantage of our best chemical and genetic technology, that are grown locally rather than in optimal soils and climates, and are retailed in inefficient, undersized and often unprofessionally managed part-time markets, they are going to cost more.

As is typical, this has nothing to do with helping the poor.  This is about government subsidy of a particular set of lifestyle choices of aging middle class hipsters.

 

  • Craig

    I hate this trendy idea that poor people don't eat well because fruits and vegetables are not sold near them. The theory goes that, if we only sell produce in the inner city, poor people will buy it and eat better. As such, the government has somehow encouraged some big retailers to establish stores in "food deserts." I look forward to seeing these ventures fail, as the premise on which they are based is false.

  • steve

    The only place to get good tasting strawberries these days is at Farmers Markets. This is because the big distributers pick them green and then ship them. When you get them at the store they are still white inside instead of red like a ripe strawberry.

    Also, the Amish around here make butter and sell it at the Farmers Market. Its labelled not for consumption by humans. Not sure why but it tastes awfully good to this human. I can't hardly tolerate store butter anymore.

    For reasons like this, I think Farmers markets will survive without subsidy or even propoganda about locally grown food. Not that they are going to take over, I still buy most of my food at the supermarket.
    The meat for example doesn't seem any different to me.

  • Mark

    The modern day supermarket is really an economic miracle. For anyone who does not think that, consider bananas. Somehow, bananas are picked in a far away country, collected in a warehouse, shipped, wholesaled, and retailed all for $0.54/lbs. And this process happens fast enough that even though the bananas are shipped thousands of miles and are probably owned by several different entitites, they are still edible when we get them. One hundred years ago, even the richest of people did not have the access and variety of foods available to even the poorest American.

  • steve

    I agree with that Mark.

  • Gaunilo

    A bit off subject, but about 15 years ago the father-in-law of my Bulgarian business partner came to the US for a visit. He was a handyman in Bulgaria. He decided to do some work on my partners house in New Orleans. My partner took him to Home Depot. When he walked in, he stood mesmerized for 10 minutes. He finally told my partner that he did not imagine that that much building material existed in the entire world, much less in one place.

    Our supermarkets have done this same miracle over time. If you think back 30 years, food that once you could find only overseas or at exotic stores is now available at just about every major food store in the big cities, and to a remarkable extent at supermarkets in small to medium cities.

    If my 25-year old self could walk into a HEB today, I would probably have the same reaction as our Bulgarian friend.

  • MJ

    Neat story, Gaunilo. We sometimes need to be reminded of this kind of thing.

  • A Critic

    "If you want crops that don’t take advantage of our best chemical and genetic technology, that are grown locally rather than in optimal soils and climates, and are retailed in inefficient, undersized and often unprofessionally managed part-time markets, they are going to cost more."

    Um, the "optimal soils" were optimal before they were farmed using the "best chemical and genetic technology". Now they are poor soils, which is why the nutritional content continues to drop. The same foods are also actually highly inefficient, requiring supply lines of hundreds to thousands of miles for the inputs and for the outputs - that includes not only the oil, but also the illegal alien labor that your ideal food depends upon.

    "I have another point – as it turns out, we already have highly efficient farmers markets that source produce from the world’s agricultural regions best suited to a particular crop and bring them in a very efficient and low-cost way to consumers, taking advantage of scale economies where they exist. "

    Those aren't farmers markets. They are agribusiness markets. They do not take advantage of scale economies - so far healthy and tasty food doesn't scale up. Bland crap does scale up.

    Also, supermarkets are chock full of subsidies. You can trace back nearly every item if not every item to government subsidies and tariffs and protective programs. The only things I eat from supermarkets nowadays are the imported Irish butter and cheese - I can't find any subsidies used in it's production. All of the rest of the cheese, milk, butter, meat, processed and prepared foods, and most or all of the veggies and fruits are based upon subsidies at some point in their production.

    I agree whole heartedly about not spending govt bucks on farmer's markets - will you agree with me that supermarkets should no longer be subsidized? Are you willing to pay the real cost of your food?

  • steve

    Yes, I agree with you whole heartedly that supermarkets should not be subsidized. Barring some intermediate pain of reorganizing their supply lines, I doubt eliminating their subsidies would put them out of business.

  • steve

    I will go further and suggest that if all subsidies (ethanol, etc.) and the taxes (fuel maybe) used to pay for the subsidies were eliminated, that food prices would end up lower then they are now. I arrive at this conclusion from my belief that 10 units of tax produces something like 8 units of subsidy with 2 going to the beuracracy. Eliminating both the tax and the subsidy ultimately harms the beuracracy not the consumer. But, that is just an opinion and I can't prove it.

  • Matt

    Sorry, but generally speaking grocery store produce is demonstrably inferior to locally grown, in-season produce. For example I will not touch a peach or tomato sold at a supermarket.

    That's not to say I'm in favor of farmer's market subsidy programs though.

  • http://blog.horton-brasses.com Orion

    Subsidizing farmer's markets would kill them. Period. I am quite happy to pay more for fresher local produce. It just tastes better. Guaranteed that agri-business would get in the game if there were subsidies. With subsidies comes regulation and inspectors and lawyers. When those three show the small farmer leaves. Most small farmers will abhor this idea. They already see the negative results of farm subsidies first hand. Their tax dollars pay for their competitions subsidy.

  • Dan Smith

    The "eat local" movement is analogous to the push to produce wind and solar power. Works great on sunny, windy days. The rest of the time there needs to be a fossil or nuclear power plant online to take care of energy needs. In the Upper midwest, where I live, the growing season is short and some foods can't be grown here, ever. So we need an efficient supermarket system operating 12 months a year to provide the bulk of our diet. Farmer's markets provide an entertaining diversion for the urban elite, who don't mind paying slightly higher prices for the privilege of driving downtown and hand picking their produce or buying organic yoghurt, meat and eggs. The farmers are often Asian immigrants. I have no idea how they exist for the eight months they can't sell their crops, but they exploit their economic niche to the fullest. So far no one has suggested that the Minneapolis/St. Paul light rail be extended so that white people in the suburbs and tonier parts of the city can "save" energy by taking the train to the market, but anything is possible.

  • Noumenon

    So subsidizing farmers' markets can permit them to employ an additional 13,500 people. How would that in any way keep farmer's markets from being for the "haves"? It would just be 13,500 more people serving the whims of the haves.