This morning the Golbabai family visited a farmers’ market in an Austin mall parking lot. Similar to my mother-in-law’s recent discovery of the usefulness of Google, I find myself a tentative and extremely late discoverer of this Saturday morning phenomenon. As someone who is more comfortable at the supermarket, the farmer’s market provided an excellent on-the-ground opportunity to compare the localist values I aspire to and the globalist world I’m used to.
Some observations comparing the supermarket and the farmers’ market from the perspective of a consumer:
- Convenience: Going to the supermarket is a quick and efficient trip for our family. Generally we know what we need, and the supermarket is ordered and organized in such a way for us to execute our shopping plan (though occasionally we might get lured to deviate from our plan by a sale or free sample). In contrast, going to a farmers’ market means not knowing what to expect, and requires approaching the experience with a willingness to take their your and treasure hunt. Without familiar brands and logos, choosing is an art of sampling (a quick way to Mrs. G’s heart) and talking to the producers themselves. This makes for an intimate exchange and a different type of shopping experience altogether.
- Price: My first impression of the farmers’ market was that of sticker shock. A little container of name-your-craft-product (jam, carrot radish, pesto, hummus) in the $6 to $8 range, meat in the $8 to $10/ lb. range. For a family that doesn’t like to go $10 over the grocery budget, such prices present a dilemma. But upon further reflection, perhaps the jury should still be out. In many cases, the products may look identical in name and appearance, but the difference in ingredients, preservatives and artificial flavors can make comparing niche products to main stream alternatives an apples and oranges comparison. How the industrial food system manages to fly product halfway across the world and still be cheaper than local farmers’ driving their trucks down the road, however, is a subject to be explored later.
- Culture: The differing purposes of each shopping establishment are reflected in the people and products, creating differences in culture. The orderliness and impersonal nature of the supermarket is in a way comforting – you can execute your shopping plan without the inconvenience of dealing with personalities or hurting feelings over purchasing decisions. Meanwhile the culture of the farmers’ market is very different. A world of craft products offered by people one is meeting for the first time makes for a more intense and eclectic shopping experience –which somehow correlates to a clientele with more distinct facial hair and a bemusing lack of shoes.
From a consumer’s perspective, if purchasing decisions are made around cost, convenience, and comfort then the farmers’ market is a tough sell. Yet we’re more than consumers; we’re human beings and part of human community. As such, there is so much more that should be considered in our buying decisions. A few of the more hidden benefits of the farmers’ market include:
- Entrepreneurship: In an economy where far too many people work for paychecks in bureaucratic systems they don’t understand, buying something at a farmers’ market seems to be a very small but important way to support those who are brave enough to attempt to turn their passion into a vocation.
- Personal Interaction: The farmers’ market often gives us the rare opportunity for producers and consumers to interact directly without any middlemen. Such an interaction provides a higher degree of accountability for product quality and sustainable practices.
- Decentralization: By decentralizing where we shop and the products we are open to trying, we allow a diversity of experiences to enter into our world and the overall market, while at the same time making it more difficult for wealth to concentrate at the highest levels.
- Keeping Money Local: Ownership matters. Chains move into a community only after careful market analysis has determined that they can extract more money out of a local economy than they put in. In contrast, buying from a local merchant helps money stay and circulate within the community.
- Placemaking: Local producers and products bring flavor, personality and culture to the places we live, and without which every place would look like every place else.
Clearly, there’s more to life and shopping than low prices, convenience and comfort. While today the Golbabai family only walked away with a container of pesto and some grass-fed longhorn, we had quite the learning adventure – one that we hope you help us continue thinking about and improving upon.