Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Recycling Old Writing — farmer's market edition

This piece was one of a few exercises I gave myself in 2003. It seems appropriate to resurrect as the growing season begins to get its legs...

The redux of bluegrass and acoustic music in recent years has spurred a number of critics to speculate that the popularity represents some deepset need in our post-industrial, suburbanized society to return to natural roots. One might make the same argument about the explosion of farmer’s markets, that our BMW-driving aging yuppies need to assuage their distance from the soil. Certainly they are doing more for the environmental movement, not to mention their consciences, by buying their organic mesclun greens and broccoli rabe from the growers themselves.

Wander through a farmers’ market on Saturday morning and you can’t help but feel like you are a part of a community. Parents bring their children and dogs. Twenty-somethings who only admit to shopping at WalMart as a last resort make plans for dinner later. Empty-nesters run into friends they only see at the market and they catch up on the accomplishments of their children. Eight weeks to eighty years, it’s a scene convivial enough to warm the hardest of businessmen’s hearts.
And the backdrop! At the best markets it couldn’t be more lovely. At the market in Fayetteville, AR—recently mentioned as a top attraction in Southern Living—one can buy basil, sock monkeys, framed photographs, emu oil, seeded plants, tomatoes, goat cheese, bread, lamb, candles, walking sticks, knit hats, squash, you name it—depending on the season. Most of the merchants do their best to present an idyllic display; bok choy is arrayed in a basket rather than simply stacked. Little is left to chance or mere commerce, even the make-up of the market itself. Vendors who sell very little are kept in while others are refused—all in the name of “the right mix,” and a fair share of politics.

A similar mix can be found at most markets, many of which are smaller versions of the original green market in Union Square. There one can buy a week’s worth of groceries for less than you’d spend in D’Agostino’s. Certainly the mix of vendors moves beyond food, but wandering through the market and fighting past the crowds around the first apples or corn, there is little question where the focus is.

The same cannot be said of the Fayetteville market or of the market in Blue Hill, Maine. These markets provide just as many retail options as they do farmers’ produce. Where the market at Union Square began as a way to bring fresh produce into the city, many of the markets one can find elsewhere are developed around two fundamentally flawed notions: first that community can be invented, and second that small-scale agriculture can be saved by weekly exposure.

The first idea grows out of our fundamentally American notion that a community can be created by the simple mixing of the right elements. Build the right houses, add sidewalks and a school and a park and POOF: instant community. Sadly it does not work that way. Fortunately, these markets do help develop a sense of community; neighbors speak to each other and there is a certain amount of interaction between the farmers and the consumers. Unfortunately the connection between the Volvo-driving mother and the farmer is no more organic or long-lasting in most cases than the relationship between that same Volvo-driving mother and the salesperson at the mall. It is as superficial an idea of community as the Upper-East-Sider who believes his adoration of the “O Brother, Where Art Thou” soundtrack gives him some insight into rural Southern life. It’s as if the guilt of environmental segregation, the culpability of not knowing where most of our food comes from can be mitigated by a nice head of broccoli, and oh what about that beatiful watercolor over there. Wouldn’t it be lovely in our bedroom? And while we’re at it, why not have a pastry. It is the mall food court, Eddie Bauer/Sierra Club edition.

My (now ex-)wife is, of course, quick to remind me when I bring up arguments such as this that I have little room to criticize. I grew up far from farm life; to me, agrarian society was a relic of the feudal era. She points to our friendships with many of the growers, bakers, and cheese producers at the market as an example of the holes in this argument. My counter-argument, however, is that my love of these markets grew out of a general appreciation for cooperatives and organic markets, and that the two are interlinked. The women who chirp over the beautiful flowers and golfshirt-wearing men with them would not, by and large, recognize the inside of a coop store. Were the majority of the people I see wandering through the markets to truly bring themselves closer to the farmers and a more integral relationship with the land, I might not regard the markets as a fanciful, idyllic mall. And it is this reaction that draws me to the second problem with the apparent explosion in the number of towns hosting farmers’ markets.

When Willie Nelson began Farm Aid in the nineteen-eighties, a small part of our popular consciousness was focused for a time on the plight of the family farmer. But our cultural attention span is short and I would wager that many people don’t even know there was such an effort. We are hardly taught to wonder why much of our produce arrives in our supermarkets off-season, thousands of miles from where it was produced at a massive, corporate-owned farming complex. And we hardly know what a real tomato looks like any more—witness the pink slab of mush texture that passes for a tomato slice in chain restaurants. It should be a ripe time for farmer’s markets to bring us back to the source of our food, right?

Unfortunately not. It will take a far more substantial movement to combat the need for convenience that drives our society. For every person assuaging his guilt by buying produce at the farmer’s market, there are hundreds who do not know that lettuce does not naturally come as a shrink-wrapped globe. For every farmer who harvests and displays a perfect basket of heritage apples, there are hundreds of thousands of people who do not realize that a Red Delicious is a wax-shiny imitation of its cousins.

Every little bit helps, of course. Still, I have to wonder whether a few markets can actually bring us as a culture closer to the soil. Is it really a real environmentalism, a reaching back to our agrarian roots, or is it merely a guilt-assuaging way to spend a few hours on Saturday morning?