I love going grocery shopping. I spend a lot of time in the kitchen, and there’s few things that make me happier than grabbing a bunch of fresh vegetables, heading to a butcher and talking shop before getting a cut of something, then popping over to the liquor store and grabbing a nice bottle of wine. If you go to the farmer’s market, you can accomplish all three.
Like any self absorbed hipster, I try and go to the farmer’s market as often as possible. The food is fresher. Everything is typically local, so I know that I’m helping out business’ in town. And there’s always a wide variety of food stuffs there, from produce, to meats, fresh honey, grains, and specialty stores. There’s also a bunch of people hawking their wares, from handcrafted wooden trinkets to odd jewellery. The only thing that makes people turn away from the old farmer’s market is the price. Here in Canada, you can expect to pay twice as much for a lot of the food on sale. Why is that?
There’s a couple of reasons. First, if the prices are high and they are still in business, that means that people are willing to pay those prices. That’s basic economics. If you can sell a cucumber for four dollars as opposed to the two dollars you’ll see at the grocery stores and people seem to have no problem paying the extra price, then you don’t have any incentive to lower your price.
Which brings us to our second point. There isn’t a whole pile of competition at the farmer’s market. The smaller the market, the less options you have, the price goes up. You might say to yourself “Well, Mr. Charlton, they’re competing with the major grocery chains, so the you would think that their prices would reflect that.” But the truth is, they are not competing with the major chains. The kind of people who shop at the farmer’s market are willing to pay the extra price, and there isn’t a lot of competition between vendors. All of the produce vendors might be selling carrots, but if only one of them is selling beets, then that vendor is going to have the beet market cornered.
The third reason is due to government subsidies. If you are a large farm producing a lot of food, then you can have access to a number of subsidies and grants, as well as insurance and other protection. The smaller farmers also can apply for this government money, but they certainly get a lot less, or none at all. Now this makes sense in some regards. Food is something that people need, and we need people to grow it. The number of farmers has been steadily decreasing for decades, while the demand for food goes up, because we have more people. If a farm is able to produce more foodstuff, then it should be entitled to more money. Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean that the mega farm will produce a wider variety of foodstuffs. A farmer who has a massive farm that produces corn, for example, will have access to more money than a small farm that produces tomatoes, beets, potatoes, beans, whatever they happen to be growing. This creates a bit of an issue, as corn is a grain relatively devoid of nutrients. We now have a scenario where the nutrient cost for food from the small farm is actually lower, but the money still goes to the farm growing corn. As a money maker, it’s a safer bet to go with growing a mono-crop than it is to diversify. This mono-crop style of farming is bad both for the environment, as well as consumers.
The system is flawed. I was going to write down some simplified, bullshit solution like ‘Hey, if we did yada yada yada, the problem would be solved!” The truth is, there’s still a lot of political power that farmers have. The subsidy money isn’t going to dry up anytime soon. Remember, most of the grains and food grown end up in processed garbage that’s making you fat and slow. The hard pill to swallow is eating fresh vegetables and unprocessed meat is going to cost you.
So my actual advice is, if you love food, spend the extra couple of bucks and support local farms. The food tastes better and is better for you. But as long as consumers keep voting with their wallets, most of the food we harvest will go into making Kraft dinner, instead of carrots.
The Illustrious Mr. Charlton
p.s. I also bought a dozen perogis for nine bucks. They were good, but they weren’t ‘Almost a dollar a pop’ good. Ain’t always a win at the farmer’s market.