This week we had our farmers market inspection. The agricultural extension agent for our county came to our property to confirm that we are growing everything we plan to sell on our vendor application.  Since we are not a traditional farm,  our products are spread all around our homestead. Our inspection ends up being a bit of a hodge-podge farm tour and requires a lot of explanation.

Since it’s early April, many of my vegetative perennial or self-seeding annual herbs and cut flowers are just now breaking ground.  Others won’t be up for another month.  In several areas, I just had to lean over and point to the signs of life and say “here’s the start of ____________” (lemon balm, anise hyssop, chamomile, prairie flowers, echinacea, red shiso, amaranth, tarragon, basil, cardoon, etc.).  I also waved my hand over my prepared beds and said this is where I’ll put tomatoes or peppers next month.

I was able to point to my duck and chicken flocks as proof that I have a source for the eggs and meat I’ll be selling.  Our strawberries, at least, are covered with blossoms denoting the possibility of fruit. Our stand of bamboo, peaking through the tops of young pine trees, was easy enough to demonstrate. And the recent explosion of shiitake on our logs in the mushroom grotto was also proof that we are in fact “producers”.  Yet, all of this adds up to only a fraction of what I will put on my market table from mid-April to October.

Shiitake Logs Fruiting

The point of the inspection, though, isn’t really to confirm that I am already growing everything I plan to sell.  No one expects a farmer in April, in our area, to be in full production. Half our crops don’t even go into the ground until “Mother’s day” (the rule of thumb local growers swear by).

The real reasons for this pre-market inspection are 1) deterrence and 2) probable cause. The very process of mandatory inspection is enough to ensure most people only sell what they grow or raise on their own properties. Also, by taking the lay of the land, seeing what growers have already started, and listening to their plans for the season, the extension agent has a basis for determining if the products on the table for the rest of the year align with the potential that was evident at inspection. If there’s a disconnect the market can make a follow-up inspection later in the season.

Not all markets go to this extent to ensure products sold are “local”. Each market decides its own rules within the boundaries of the law. And there is no law that says a farmers market must only include local farmers and local products.  So whether a market enforces a local product policy or allows re-sale of non-market vendor products is at market-management discretion.

To be honest, even though I have no problem with complying with the rules, I have concerns about what this kind of enforcement policy means for the long-term future of our markets. My opinions on this subject are philosophical, practical, and personal and are not meant to criticize our markets (or any market). My point in writing about this is to engage a broader debate about why local might be less important as a qualifier than small-production.

Our market charges $75 to become a vendor and that fee gives you access to three markets a week from mid-April to October. The markets are nice with high quality vendors and good county and city support.  But they have inconsistent customer traffic. There’s enough business to make it worth the $75 fee, but none of the vendors are fully self-supporting from these venues. Those dependent on farm income still have to hustle and have other outlets for sales to make ends meet.

Initially, the idea that people would break the rules and try to pass industrial produce off as farmers market quality seemed preposterous. But as I have learned, earning a living as a farmer is difficult. Industrial produce is cheap and readily available at nearby produce outlets. The same varieties of produce, displayed on a table at an open air market staffed by a smiling farmer, can be priced at double or triple the wholesale cost. Interspersed with other goods that were actually locally grown, many consumers would never know the difference and most wouldn’t think to ask.

Rumor has it, something of this nature happened in our local markets and necessitated the formal inspection process. I don’t know if it did.  But, if you are a farmer with an established clientele and a reliance on your produce sales, I can see how re-sale might be viewed as a viable back-up plan if you have massive crop failure.  In fact, some markets allow, and even encourage, re-sale activity as long as the farm name and growing location are clearly displayed with the products.

Most small markets struggle with the dilemma of having enough vendors to make it worthwhile for customers to come and having enough customers to make it worthwhile for vendors to come. In my case, there are weeks when I simply do not have enough harvest to fill a table and setting up a half-empty table doesn’t benefit me or the market customers.  Giving vendors more freedom with regard to what they put on their table means fewer vendors can offer more variety and have more opportunity for income from limited customers. This means more stalls stay filled and can keep a market afloat until both the vendor and the customer base increase to the point of being worthwhile for everyone.

Among vendors, there are often strong feelings on the other side of the argument as well. Vendors who work hard to grow all of their own products and charge a real price for them are concerned about being undercut by re-salers. They don’t want to see the authenticity of a local market watered down with corporate products.

Customers too, probably have preferences. I know I did when I used to shop at farmer markets.  I asked questions about what, where, and how things were grown or raised before I bought.  But, when I lived in the DC area, and shopped at markets, I liked being able to buy small production olive oil from Greece along with my local honey.  For me, local is important. However, creating alternate markets and supply chains to give small-batch producers access to customers is something I see as totally critical.

We live in an age when department stores and chain stores are closing doors as more and more people turn to online shopping.  Not that there was much virtue in shopping at a chain store, but they were at least points of human interaction.  A polite greeting from a salesperson as you walk in the door, a little chit-chat during the payment process, maybe someone brought you another size while you were in the dressing room.  As impersonal as that is, interfacing with a computer is infinitely less personal.

When I sat down to write about this, the more I wrote and contemplated, the more clear it became that I am less concerned with local and more concerned about making sure people have access to goods with a human story.  I want markets to allow items that were made, grown, or collected for re-sale with love, by human beings, instead of factories or corporations.  Size matters for me. Markets make sales transactions personal again even if the produce is from two counties over, farmed by equipment instead of human hands. Whether the human standing in the stall made or grew the goods themselves is less important to me than whether we create options for small growers and producers to support participation in human-scaled alternative economies.

“Yes, but I want local produce.  I want to get the fossil fuel miles out of my food purchases.  Local matters.” I hear this argument echoing in my own head, not from some imaginary opponent, but from myself just a few years ago.  And I think of how naive that idea was.

If you dig into the details, you will find the only thing local in our markets is the person doing the growing or selling (and many of us come by way of some other place too).  All of us local “producers” buy our seeds from vendors in other states who collected seeds from around the world.  We use fertilizers and pesticides that come from around the globe (e.g. organic neem oil from trees in India). We drive our globally built cars using foreign oil to get to the market. We shop at Home Depot, Lowe’s, and Tractor Supply for growing supplies like seed starting light bulbs.  Or we use Amazon for our soil block makers. Our tractors, tools, tables, tents, packaging, etc. are all generally from China. For those of us who refuse to grow GMOs, our crops are still cross-pollinated by GMOs engineered elsewhere and shipped wherever, carried on the wind to our properties without our permission.

If we bake goods, we use commercial flour from Australia.  If we make jams or jellies, we use industrial sugar from Brazil or India.  If we tie a ribbon around our flower bouquet or encase it in plastic wrap, that too came somewhere outside the North American Continent. The asphalt we park on came from somewhere else. The shade trees giving us cover might have come from halfway around the world. Even markets totally focused on local products are substantially underpinned by global, corporate supply chains.  And, there is no way around this for the time being.

I believe the motivation for these local only policies stems from wanting to give small agricultural growers a protected place to sell their wares. This is necessary because the regular market is heavily rigged in favor of conglomerates, sourcing from hundreds of large producers, using industrial practices with prices determined by commodities trading on futures where the real winners are market gamblers (as in stock market participants and stock managers), not farmers.  On that playing field, us little guys could easily compete if we were subsidized at the level of industrial producers and given the same kind of tax breaks.  In fact, we could probably pay customers to buy our produce and still make a good living if we had their advantages. But that’s not our current reality.

Local only markets are meant as an antidote to a failed agricultural support system. Their cause is noble and gives me hope.  But, as I learned in my time as a legal administrator, when you impose a procedure to favor certain behaviors to limit rule-breaking, you increase the level of bureaucracy and invite more complication into your processes.  The more bureaucratic a system is, the more difficult it is to maintain. When small endeavors hit a high degree of complication, they fail.

In our case, our market fee of $75 can’t possibly cover the time and vehicle costs involved in the inspection process, market operations, and promotional activities for three county markets. I am almost certain that if real costs were calculated it operates at a loss, and is heavily subsidized by public funding.  We fund much less beneficial programs with tax-payer dollars, so I am not proposing we change this.  Yet, when funding cuts occur, as they always do, then programs like ours become vulnerable since they are so labor intensive and have limited financial potential and difficult to measure community outreach. Our best intentions can end up back-firing as our own rules limit our potential for expansion and endurance.

Every layer of complexity we add increases distance between us and what’s really important — giving small producers a reason to keep growing and consumers real options.  Interest in farmers markets is increasing because so many of us want our retail transactions to remain human-based. We don’t want human beings to become irrelevant in world of ever-increasing automation. And I believe this movement can continue to grow in opposition to the increasing de-personalization of our over-corporatized environments.

However, to do so, it must mesh with the real struggles in our lives right now. Most of us are over-busy, trying to make ends meet, manage increasing complexity, and cope with the endless requirements of our supposedly convenience-driven lives. Unless the markets have what we need every time we go, our visits will be irregular.  Time is precious and  even if our ideals get us to the markets, only a bounty of products keeps us coming back regularly.

Our challenge right now is to hold the line long enough for things to change. Encouraging small producers by whatever means necessary is critical for market diversity.  There will absolutely be rule-breakers, liars, and people not using ethically sound growing practices.  That will happen no matter how many rules you make to prevent it. I personally think that’s a risk we need to take to create viable, enduring alternatives to industrial food processes and to begin to unravel corporate ownership of the means by which we support and provision for ourselves.

Long live the little guys!  Human-scale prevail!