Our recent series on farmer’s markets, which included pieces here and here, brought many letters including this one:
I write regarding your recent forum article(s) — Fraudulent Farmer’s Markets ‘Detrimental To Legitimate Farms, Retailers And To Consumers’:
Undoubtedly there are some individual farmers market traders that pursue profit without honesty or integrity, but not all should be tarred with the same brush, nor the markets as an entity rubbished as a result. The same could certainly be said of all sectors of the business world and in this context some of the largest retailers… Perhaps you can agree that it is only the level of sophistication and the level of profit gained that separates them?
It is clear that farmers markets are not, taken on their own, a sustainable solution to feeding cities every day. But they are a very necessary and real solution to halting the demise of the smaller scale farmer/producer and the rural communities within which they are located. These markets form an important part of (and are critical to) the future survival of such communities. The prolific rise of farmers markets in the US in recent years has been brought about by various factors—including public demand which is allied to a recognition of the decline in quality and competition resulting from the buying practices of the multiples.
Consumers are not stupid, nor are they easily dictated to, and the success of these local markets is their response to a recognition of the dangers associated with having the food supply chain dominated and controlled by an increasingly small number of ever larger and more powerful players. They are a response to the human need (dare I say right?) to live in a community with a healthy, prosperous and honest food supply chain that is supportive of all.
These articles you publish paint a bleak but certainly exaggerated picture of the current situation. But what they do achieve is to highlight the need for the professional management of markets.
Many progressive municipalities and farmers/operators trade organisations (in Europe, for instance) understand this basic fact and, as a consequence, their successful markets all have one thing in common: they employ a professional management either within the municipality or via a private management in partnership with the local authority. It is undoubtedly in both the public and food industry’s interest that various levels of government retain involvement in the food supply chain, not leaving it to the mercy of pure(?!) ‘market forces’.
But then, is the Perishable Pundit and its readership open to such a discussion/viewpoint? This forum appears to be mainly supportive of the larger (“legitimate” I believe is the term you used?!) retailers and food companies. One of the core goals of these large retailers and food companies is to ensure the continuation of their current monopoly of the food supply chain for the sole purpose of maximising and increasing profits and power. But at what cost?
One of the main processes they employ is to remove other players in the sector wherever possible, and to do so regardless of the detriment to communities, consumers, small scale and local producers, and micro/small– medium-sized business in the process. There should always be room for choice in life and, thankfully, farmers markets currently help to achieve this in terms of how we source our food. I will not start here a discussion on the many other problems these large retailers cause: lack of diversity and city centre deserts being just two of them.
I can only wonder who instigated this “investigation” into the farmers markets there, and with what motive? The articles are certainly very long on (negative) opinion and supposition, and very short on presented fact. But then for those awake while reading, you have made the real beneficiaries of this campaign fairly clear in your article…
— Maria Cavit
World Union of Wholesale Markets (WUWM)
The Hague, Netherlands
The World Union of Wholesale Markets is not well known in the United States. First its name is a misnomer as it actually promotes both wholesale and retail markets. Though it calls itself the “World Union,” in the US, only the Maryland Food Center Authority and the San Francisco Wholesale Produce Market are members.
We are, of course, honored that Secretary General Cavit would take the time to write and share her concerns with the industry, but we confess that we do not really understand her point:
- She acknowledges that there are “some individual farmers market traders that pursue profit without honesty or integrity, but not all should be tarred with the same brush”—but, of course, we did no such thing. In fact, we specifically mentioned that there were legitimate vendors such as Underwood Farms.
- The Secretary General makes a vague insinuation that some of largest retailers lack honesty and integrity. But she names no names nor tells us what she is talking about. We’ve written plenty about Wal-Mart, Tesco and recently wrote an analysis of the plan of Delhaize to consolidate procurement. We have offered many critiques of these giants but there is a difference not in degree but in kind between our disagreeing with a policy choice and alleging that they are defrauding consumers and landlords.
- There is a big point made that farmer’s markets “…are a very necessary and real solution to halting the demise of the smaller scale farmer/producer and the rural communities within which they are located. These markets form an important part of (and are critical to) the future survival of such communities.” Of course, our pieces were specifically focused on the issue of vendors at farmer’s markets fraudulently selling produce from large produce growers. In other words, vendors who were subverting the very goals that the Secretary General proclaims as essential.
- The issue of why farmer’s markets have boomed in recent years is an intriguing one. Although it is possible that this is a function, as the Secretary General writes of “public demand,” that sort of begs the question. If small growers get public subsidies in the form of reduced rent or taxes, for example, there may be strong demand for their products. Whether this has anything to do with a “healthy, prosperous and honest food supply chain that is supportive of all” is difficult to say. We are actually a little perplexed at what the Secretary General is implying. Is she saying that somehow product sold direct to consumers at farmer’s markets is somehow superior to the produce sold to retailers and restaurants at markets in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane that she represents? We doubt that the folks at Jessup or San Francisco are too hot on this claim. Do they pay Secretary General Cavit to demean their product?
- The letter applauds “professional management” and who could disagree? But the markets we were speaking of are all professionally managed. The problem is not a lack of professionalism; it is a matter of incentives. The management of these markets wants them to be successful. To make them successful, the management is willing to not rigorously explore the derivation of the produce. In fact, it is reasonable to assume that the farmer’s markets that feature a wider diversity of product will be more appealing to most consumers, so the incentive leads management to turn a blind eye to suspicious vendors and not ask too many questions.
Some parts of the letter seem almost beside the point: “It is undoubtedly in both the public and food industry’s interest that various levels of government retain involvement in the food supply chain, not leaving it to the mercy of pure(?!) ‘market forces’.” We were writing about the state and municipal regulation of farmer’s markets, so it seems quite a leap from this question to government — the Food and Drug Administration, the United States Department of Agriculture, etc. — withdrawing from “involvement in the food supply chain.” As an academic matter, we will say that the point is pure assertion. We actually have no idea what would happen in an advanced industrialized country if the government were to withdraw from involvement even with one aspect of the food supply chain. If the government, for example, simply announced that it was no longer going to be involved in food safety, it is not obvious that people will start dropping left and right from foodborne illness. Maybe people would be willing to only buy brands they trust so branding would increase. Maybe, just as Orthodox Jews won’t buy food without certification by a rabbinical authority they trust, maybe consumers wouldn’t buy food if it hadn’t won a seal of approval from a food safety organization they trust.
One can’t just assert things expecting everyone in the world to share one’s biases and preconceptions.
- We never used the word “legitimate” at all. David Sasuga, owner at Fresh Origins, used the word to refer to farmers and supermarkets who follow the law, don’t defraud people, pay their taxes, etc. — as opposed to a faux farmer who takes a booth at a farmer’s market but buys the produce at a wholesaler and lies about his sales so he doesn’t pay much in rent or tax.
The Secretary General takes a dig at the Pundit itself: “…is the Perishable Pundit and its readership open to such a discussion/viewpoint? This forum appears to be mainly supportive of the larger (“legitimate” I believe is the term you used?!) retailers and food companies.” This is unfair. We are publishing the Secretary General’s unedited letter, and we never duck from a robust debate. But empty assertions don’t leave much for discussion. After all, if you start out with statements such as “It is undoubtedly…” there really is not much to discuss. The whole point is that one has to state a case that would persuade people who disagree with you.
- The Secretary General seems unfamiliar with the food industry in the United States. She says that “One of the core goals of these large retailers and food companies is to ensure the continuation of their current monopoly of the food supply chain” — yet the competition in fresh produce outlets is getting tougher all the time. This weekend, the Pundit family bought some produce — some really beautiful bananas at Starbucks. But we could have bought them at Walgreens, at a conventional Target store, at a Wal-Mart Supercenter, a Target Supercenter, at Costco, at Sam’s Club, at two conventional supermarket chains, two health-oriented supermarket chains, a gourmet chain, a kosher food market, an independent retailer, a gas station mini-mart, via an Internet delivery service and, if all this was unsatisfactory, we could select from hundreds of restaurants of all types and price ranges. These folks are the worst monopolists we’ve ever seen!
- The letter goes on to wax poetic over the virtues of small scale. It is not necessary to argue that the Secretary General is wrong in seeing these virtues. We only argue that people have to make choices in life. So, one can elect to go to a small hardware store, accept the limited hours, the restricted selection and pay higher prices. Some people do this. That is their right. They feel that Joe, the hardware store owner, supports local causes, keeps a watchful eye out for errant children, any number of virtues. Others see the blessing of lower prices, more convenient hours and better selection and prefer to go to Home Depot or Lowe’s. The issue here, the very specific issue, is whether we want to restrict people’s choices by making public facilities available only to politically approved vendors. If Baltimore wants to have a public market in a park, it is not obvious to us that the citizens are being served by banning the wholesalers at Jessup, Maryland, from buying booths and selling their wares. For that matter, how are they helping small farmers by banning them from having a wholesaler market their product at the public market if the farmer happens to want to spend his time farming rather than marketing?
- The Secretary General finds something nefarious in the fact that NBC did an investigation at all. We don’t know what motivated the investigation, but we also don’t really care. Even if a supermarket executive whispered into a reporter’s ear to go follow the story, the story has to stand or fall on its own merits, not the motivations of the tipster. The bottom line is that consumers were being defrauded. We would think that an organization that claims to promote wholesale and retail markets worldwide would be outraged.
Although we critique this letter, we appreciate it none the less and assure Secretary General Cavit that our pages are open to vigorous debate for the benefit of the industry.
Part of the issue is the use of a “farmer selling his own product” as a proxy for some other value.
Back when we were critiquing the locally grown procurement initiative at UC Davis, which we did here, here, here, here and here, a big part of that critique was that Davis ought to define and declare its values. If it wanted tastier produce or produce that caused less carbon emissions or used less water, it ought to make those points explicit specifications, not assume that local is a proxy for these things.
Equally, if the value is that a farmer’s market should only sell produce grown on farms of X acres or less, that should be the criteria. Not whether the person sitting in the slot is employed by the farm.
That people like farmer’s markets is clear; that they would be horribly upset if the rules were changed to allow a farmer to sell his produce to a wholesaler who could then sell it at the market is much less clear to us.
A second issue and, we suspect, the core issue here is what is the best way for the people to express their will?
It has been said that democracy tells us what people want; whereas capitalism tells us what people want most.
Secretary General Cavit’s letter is really a statement of preferences for small scale, local farmers and businesses. But, of course, we wouldn’t need policies to promote this if the benefits were so obvious that consumers supported small scale on their own.
Food for thought.
Many thanks to Secretary General Maria Cavit and the World Union of Wholesale Markets for weighing in on this important industry issue.