Are Farmers' Markets elitist?

Paper given at Viva Voce, Vino event at the Woodend Winter Arts Festival on 8th June by Dr David Gormley-O’Brien, President of the Macedon Ranges Sustainability Group.

In 1938 Farr's of Newcastle, New South Wales, became the first store in Australia to refer to itself as a "super market". Having already pioneered the idea of ready-cooked meals in its Goulburn store some years before, Farr's of Newcastle offered self-service for a range of departments including a delicatessen, fruit and vegetables, fish, confectionery, and bakery goods. It advertised itself with a little ditty,

You walk around, pick and choose
the goods you want, no time to lose;
serve yourself, you're sure to say
'Isn't it splendid, it's the Farr better way.'"

During the 1930s, the concept of a super market was much discussed in the Australian media before the term caught on. Travellers returning from America waxed lyrical about shopping complexes called supermarkets where everything for the kitchen could be purchased under one roof. However, many pundits here were not convinced that the "so-called super market" would work in Australia. “Conditions in Australia might not enable such a scheme to be operated so successfully here,” wrote the financial editor of the Brisbane Sunday Mail in 1935. Few people could have predicted how popular these self-service chains would become during the late 1950s and 1960s, after the years of wartime shortages and rationing. The first modern supermarket opened in Brisbane in 1957, called the Chermside Drive-In Shopping Centre, later to be taken over by Woolworths, which advertised itself as “a new kind of store … dedicated to your suburban family living … where you can drive in and park with convenience.” The centre offered 26 shops, including a florist, a milk and doughnut bar, a fruit and vegetable shop, a newsagent, a butcher’s shop, a beauty salon, an optometrist, a chemist and more. The centre also had its own children’s nursery, so that busy parents could drop off their kids while they shopped in peace. Coles opened its first Australian supermarket in North Balwyn, Melbourne, in 1960, and supermarkets rapidly became an integral part of the Australian suburban landscape. Today the highly concentrated Australian supermarket retail industry attracts annual revenue of $103bn with Coles and Woolworths accounting for 60%.

For most consumers, (I am always mindful that in the 14th century the original term referred to a person who squanders), the rise of the supermarket was extremely liberating. One could now drive to the supermarket store and complete the family's shopping in a matter of a couple of hours rather than over several days of trudging from shop to shop on the high street. As complex transport systems were developed and technological methods of enabling food to be shipped long distances were invented, people could now throw off the seasonal shackles and tyranny of distance which had limited the food choices for the mass of humanity in its history up until then (previously only the extremely wealthy could afford out of season or distant produce). Now, every suburban family had access to a seeming limitless cornucopia from every part of the globe. A consumer in any Australian suburban town could have access to bananas and pineapples from Queensland, prawns from Thailand, garlic from Argentina, and honey from China. Suburban people's cooking styles and diets changed markedly in the last quarter of the 20th century. Highly publicised, pre-packaged meals, like Rice-a-riso, were considered a god-send for modern, busy families.

Yet, for all the celebrations of abundance and convenience, awkward questions started to surface about the industry's possible negative impacts and ultimate sustainability. Each time a supermarket store opened in town, several local shops in the High Street seemed to close. The industry's constant drive to reduce production costs favoured industrial-scale agriculture, with its attendant dependence on pesticides and herbicides, over local farmers. The abundance of out of season food was only made possible by transporting long distances using cheap, non-renewable, fossil fuels; the availability of inexpensive highly-processed, less nutritious and less healthy foods was suspected of contributing to the growing obesity epidemic in our society; the availability of cheap meat was at the expense of animal cruelty (hen batteries, pigs etc); the flip-side of food abundance was food wastage, now understood to be a major contributor to greenhouse gases and climate change, and so on.

Influenced by certain food leaders and authors like John Seymour and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, consumers began to be interested, not merely in availability and taste, but in the quality and provenance of their food. Food was now seen to have an ethical dimension. It is not the only time in history that this has happened. High-minded upper-class women hosting tea parties in 18th century England would intentionally choose to go without sugar so that they were seen not to support the slavery sugar plantations in the West Indies. They called it "blood sugar". Josiah Wedgewood in the 1760s produced the abolition teapot with the inscription,

Health to the sick;
Honor to the brave;
Success to the lover;
And freedom to the slave.

The Farmers’ Market movement is likewise a protest movement and provides an alternative to what it sees as the industrialised supermarket machine. Victoria's first farmers' market opened in Collingwood children's farm in 2002. In a relatively short period of time (less than 20 years) there are 37 + 1 accredited farmers' markets in Victoria, including five in the Macedon Ranges alone. It is a multi-million dollar industry and the expansion is showing no signs of slowing down in the near future. These Farmers’ Markets focus on three areas: i) quality and freshness of food; 2) environmental sustainability; 3) economic concern for local farmers and artisans. Rather than entrusting the production of their food to faceless, multi-national agribusinesses and middlemen, customers at farmers' markets could now approach the grower and producer of their food directly. Relationships are made, often on a first name basis, between a customer and the grower going far beyond a mere financial transaction. There is a recognition of mutual dependence where customers value the farmers' production of healthy food for themselves and their families and the farmers' right to a decent livelihood. Farmers’ Markets seek to preserve the savoir-faire of the farmer locally and to ensure that there are agricultural lands close to urban centres.

Farmers' Markets in turn have attracted criticisms from some quarters for being elitist, that only well-heeled food snobs can afford the exorbitant prices of fresh, locally produced food. However, the assumption that fresh food at farmers' markets are more expensive than at supermarkets, though widely contended, is not supported by formal research. A study in Vermont during the summer of 2010, for example, suggests that the situation seems to be more complex than that.  It seems that some things like eggs, and potatoes may be cheaper at the supermarket but that all organic vegetables and even some in-season non-organic vegetables and fruitwere cheaper at the farmers' market. 

The main obstacle to healthy food equity is the fact that fresh, healthy, less energy dense food tends to be more expensive compared to energy dense, highly processed and less healthy food items. These latter foods have been directly linked to the higher incidence of obesity and diabetes which are statistically more prevalent in lower socioeconomic households. A second obstacle is that some people from lower socioeconomic households may not have the domestic skills to cook and prepare fresh food. Farmers' markets can be in a unique position to address these two obstacles. (There are examples of farmers' markets in the United States, which has a less developed social security net when compared to Australia, giving lower income families food stamps or coupons to purchase fresh food; a program which is purported to be quite popular. The point is that fresh food can be subsidised in one form or another without depriving the producer of a sufficient return. Closer to home, at the Woodend Community Farmers' Market, we have a vegetarian action group which cultivates relationships with visitors (extremely important) and gives ideas and cooking demonstrations for the preparation and cooking of fresh food. Elitism with regards to exclusion can be ameliorated through initiatives like these. Access to fresh, healthy food and having the skills to prepare and cook it need not be the sole possession of the well to do.

There is, however, a certain trait that has traditionally been regarded as elitist but, I suggest, is desirable to cultivate, acting for the common good. This virtue, Aristotle would call it a virtue of justice, is usually associated with someone with sufficient means and a privileged education who, inspired by philosophical or religious ideals, desires to improve the lot and well-being of the many. An example of this elitist virtue in action can be seen with the Cadbury brothers during the late 19th century. These brothers were Quakers of a temperance persuasion, who not only built a cocoa factory in Bournville, close to Birmingham, but also a complete village for their workers, with small but comfortable houses, a park and recreational areas for taking exercise, and, as one would expect, no tavern or public house. This model village was designed to 'alleviate [for the working classes] the evils of modern, more cramped living conditions.'

It is only relatively recently, in the past 100 years or so, that the non-elite, people of lower socioeconomic status, have been acknowledged, albeit grudgingly, to have the capacity to act for the common good. All through history of Western civilisation beginning with Aristotle who framed his Ethics with the elite freemen of Athens in mind through to the second half of the 19th century England the ruling classes considered the poor to be unable to act for the common good. It was the American Civil War in the 1860s which indirectly challenged this view. During the war the Unionists blockaded Confederate ports to prevent cotton exports from the Southern states. This caused severe unemployment and hardships among the cotton mill workers in Lancashire who were dependent on this raw material. Several mill owners petitioned the UK government to put pressure on the North to raise the blockade but a meeting of mill workers in 1864 wrote to Abraham Lincoln to tell of their support for the abolition of slavery even if it entailed their own deprivation and hardship. This surprisingly "noble" sentiment of concern for others was not lost on England's political leaders who, after resisting several decades of futile petitioning from the Chartists, granted suffrage for the first time to working class men with property in 1868. 

The point that all people, irrespective of their socioeconomic status, have the capacity to act for the common good buttresses my conviction that FMs can play a significant role in public consciousness-raising. That is, when consumers start deliberating about their food choices, it is a series of small steps to go from questions about whether this or that food is healthy for me and my family, to entertaining related questions of justice for local farmers, animal welfare etc, and from there ultimately to the broader environmental issues of pollution, wastage, resource depletion, and climate change. The French word for consciousness-raising is sensibilisation and I would like to import into that term the Aristotelian observation that virtue is a habit. Sensibililisation, is not achieved simply from the spouting of facts about the destruction of the environment and and the dire effects of climate change etc, like a doomsday prophet on a street corner predicting the end of the world. No one is motivated by that. Rather sensibilisation involves participation, where one develops the habit of making choices and doing simple acts. Sensibilisation is education in the fullest possible sense. It is sensibilisation that is happening in our schools with our young children. They learn about waste and recycling in the classroom and develop the habit of practising it at home, often to the bemusement of their parents; these small steps lead to larger acts like participation in climate rallies and a genuine concern for others etc.

So are farmers' markets elitist? No and Yes. No, FMs can reduce the negative, exclusive aspects of elitism by employing initiatives that bridge the obstacles of the higher price of fresh food compared to processed food of supermarkets and providing the necessary domestic skills for preparing and cooking healthy food. On the other hand, yes, FMs can foster the positive aspirational aspects of elitism by providing an arena where people can make ethical choices and act for the good of others, as well as themselves. And in a world where one often feels insignificant and impotent when confronted by the global scale of the environmental problems that confront us, being able to act ethically, to act with the freedom of the will, albeit in small ways, is sufficient for us to keep on going.

Select bibliography (to come)