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Today’s post on Robbwolf.com brought the second part of a five-part series of interviews with renowned farmer, activist, and sustainable food extraodinaire Joel Salatin.  During the interview (which I highly recommend watching), Joel comments that farmers markets could be more widely accepted by the masses if there were a central checkout location where you could pay with a credit card, versus dealing in cash with each individual farmer.

Would a central checkout system work for farmers markets, and what are other changes that could influence the popular food-purchasing paradigm on a personal level (or make a 7 out of a 5, as Joel might put it)?

At first glance, the physical construction of most farmers markets would prevent such a setup, and here’s why:  They are meant to take place one or two mornings per week, and for a short window of time (usually four hours).  Since these are usually low traffic times for businesses, the farmers markets are welcomed with open arms, and usually given space in parking lots or open lawn areas.  Plenty of room for the farmers to set up their displays, along with extra space for a band, coffee vendor, animal adoption tent, t-shirt sales, cooking demos, you name it.

The open space and multiple entrance/exit points that permit the market to become a destination where an entire morning can be spent socializing and loitering works against the concept of the market using supermarket-style transactions from a security (thievery) and payment (how to divvy up the cash/credit, taxes, etc) perspective.

These problems could be solved by creating a single store or location, in which the owners of the store purchase goods from the farmers, then sell them with a markup (i.e. supermarkets).  From here it just becomes a matter of scale between the mom-and-pop neighborhood market and a more local-oriented conglomerate like Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s.

Each has their benefits, and I suppose personal preference and where you sit on Joel’s food independence scale determines your level of interest and participation.  For my money, going and speaking to the people who grew/raised the food I’m going to consume is rewarding in and of itself.  There’s something about physically putting your cash into their hands in exchange for quality edible material that makes it far more meaningful than automatic belts, constant beeping sounds of varying decibels, and a tattooed college kid asking if you found everything OK.  Not to mention being outside and walking about for the morning, chance encounters with folks you haven’t seen in a long time, or the possibility of finding some REALLY good local band that you just have to check out again.  That doesn’t happen often, but you get my drift.

I can also appreciate that there are both farmers and consumers out there for whom that scene is not attractive.  A lot of people enjoy their routine, and would rather do their business in private (heads out of the gutter, folks).  For them, a store that purchases the food from the farmers, then sells it to the masses from a permanent location is perfect.  I drove 25 minutes (each way) to one such store today, just to see what the prices and availability were like.  Sure, there was some food from Mexico, and some from a little farther away than I would have liked, but over all, good quality, very fresh, and VERY cheap.  It was also a husband-wife operation where their 6 year-old daughter sat behind a table sorting a bushel of green beans while making up songs about produce.  “Oh, brawww-ko-leeeee…”.  It’s a place worth spending your money.

Our $22 trip to the produce market!

As is the more expensive outdoor market at the trendy, “green”, mixed-use historical renovation district that’s a mere 4 miles from my house.  I really shouldn’t bash it, considering the firm I work for is the landscape architect for the project and actually designed the farmers market area, but it can be a bit stuffy all the time.  Plenty of good produce though, and it offers the personal interaction with farmers that I enjoy, as well as the coffee, bands, and occasional noontime margaritas.

Land the plane, Tim.  What the heck is the point?

The point is that it is going to take varying degrees of eater/farmer interface and a huge variety in retail options if we are to move everyone closer to food independence.  It is also going to take a higher density of market options, which the supermarket chains will definitely have something to say about.  Until every human is within efficient striking distance of a purveyor of quality edibles (in whatever form), the big box retailer on the frontage road and their  low-quality wares will continue to win.  Just as with fuel independence, economic independence, and everything else.  So get out there and vote with your wallet!