I thought I’d share with you an excerpt of a paper I wrote at uni in 2008 about the role farmers markets in community building, alongside some photos of mine from various farmers market adventures.
“People like to go in at a leisurely pace – they might stop for coffee and listen to the entertainment, there’s a real social component to it. And more than that, the appeal is that the vendor is actually selling products they’ve made or grown. People are more and more concerned with how things are made and at farmers’ markets; you can talk to the vendor and find out exactly what has gone into it. That’s important to people.” (P. Wilkes of Alberta Agriculture Food and Rural Development in Dey, 2008)
Food forms an integral part of the social, environmental and economic fabric of human society, and where our fare comes from matters just as much as what we do with it and how we share it with the people around us. With the spotlight firmly on ‘sustainability’ there has been a renewed passion for local and organic products to replace the unsustainable trafficking of goods over huge distances and the use of environmentally damaging chemicals and pesticides. As any good chef will tell you, the foundation of any sensational meal is the quality of the ingredients, as celebrity chefs the world over promoting the use of locally sourced, organic and top quality ingredients, it is no wonder that consumer’s interest in sources of these products has grown substantially. Farmers markets provide an opportunity for urban dwellers to find locally grown, fresh and often organic produce, and enhance the local economy by providing a revenue stream for small farmers and supporting tourism (Tiemann, 2008) (Hinrichs, 2000) (Halweil, 2002). Can these casual meeting places also provide a space for the community to reconnect, both with each other and the source of their provisions? Could they be a source of social capital, and a community support structure?
Farmers markets, as used in this discussion, can be defined as any gathering of stalls in a temporary or semi-permanent arrangement (which is not open for the majority of the week) purveying products sourced from the surrounding region and so includes both fresh fruit/ vegetables and valued added, locally made, products such as jams, pickles and honey. This definition can also be extended to include collections of street food vendors, or any market adjacent permanent restaurants/cafes and even associated art and craft stalls/galleries.
The market structure dates back to Ancient Rome and Greece where these areas where just as much about purchasing supplies as they were spaces for informal association, social interaction and forums for political debate (Wilkins & Hill, 2006). Informal association, according to Hugh Mackay, is an important aspect of human society;
‘Humans are herd animals, and we cut ourselves off from the herd at our psychological peril…This is a society in which we have rediscovered the importance of the community… It’s a society in which we have worked out how to live like modern, urban and suburban villagers. We’re eating out more, as we recognise that grazing with the herd is an important step towards reconnecting with the herd; coffee shops and cafes have become meeting places for incidental as well as planned contact. We’re creating and using more communal space in the manner of a European plaza, the local park has become a kind of village green.’ (Mackay, 1999 p xxxIII)
Parks and public spaces serve as a place to observe the positive aspects of public life and space, develop civic pride, social contact, skills of association, acceptance of diversity, sense of freedom, and even common sense (with respect to aesthetic standards and public taste)(Tiemann, 2008). Markets can act as mediators, to introduce people to public spaces thereby raising their awareness, and perhaps leading to increased appreciation of location, identity and pride (Hinrichs, 2000) (Tiemann, 2008). Shared places promote feelings of ownership and hence occurrences of vandalism and antisocial behaviour decrease as people define an area as “theirs”, people are more considerate when consuming spaces they will visit again (Archer & Beale, 2004). As farmers markets only a occur one or two days per week the space may have other uses, this encourages many different people to take ownership of a space and appreciate community’s complexity, as the space is utilised by a mixture of different groups (Tiemann, 2008). In the context of planning; one of the Western Australian Planning Commissions ‘Liveable Neighbourhoods’ objectives under ‘Community Design’ is to enhance the context of development , strengthen local character and identity and promote a sense of community (WAPC, 2000).
The social interaction between shoppers at farmers markets is much higher than at traditional shopping centres (Sommer, 1985), it is estimated that people have 10 times as many conversations at farmers markets than they do at supermarkets (Halweil, 2002). These spaces aid in the creation of social capital; connecting and developing networks of trust and reciprocity across social groups, developing casual association, and acceptance of diversity (Gasteyer et al., 2008) Urban consumers are more likely to visit a farmers market for the atmosphere and entertainment rather than strictly to purchase food (Gasteyer et al., 2008) which leads to a relaxed and friendly atmosphere amongst shoppers.
Sense of community is not only an matter for patrons of the market but also for the producers. For the farmers the market gives them a chance for escape from their solitary work in the field, to develop informal relationships with others in the industry, and a chance to reconnect with the herd (Tiemann, 2008). This would not be the case if the market where to be open every day of the week, as the sense of novelty would be lost and it would just become part of the daily grind. The market atmosphere provides a forum for casual association between producers, networking opportunities, sharing of knowledge and may also breed a healthy competition for quality and presentation of produce (Hinrichs, 2000)(Tiemann, 2008). Having a casual opportunity to sell produce allows small scale producers to remain financially viable, adding an aspect of solidarity to the community’s economy (Sommer, 1985) (Gasteyer et al., 2008). Money spent at locally owned, run and produced products stays in the community for longer, thereby raising incomes and creating jobs (Halwiel, 2002). Local employment opportunities are another important aspect of the ‘liveable neighbourhoods’ concept (WAPC, 2000). Remaining economically viable also allows farmers to stay on the land and reduces the pressure to develop rural land for residential or industrial purposes, therefore preserving open space and vegetated landscapes providing clear environmental benefits especially in city environments (Mender & Goldsmith, 1996).
Alongside ‘supporting local farmers’ and ‘buying from the community’, ‘the connection with the Earth’s seasons’ was one of the most common responses to the question ‘ What is your favourite aspect of the market?’ in a survey of the Carrboro Farmers’ Market (North Carolina) in 2002 (Tiemann, 2008). The produce which is available at a farmers market changes from week to week as what is grown locally evolves with the season and so consumers stay in touch with the world outside the urban disconnected environment. This is an issue which speaks to Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City design that incorporated a glass-covered, open-air market in the centre of the city (Clarke, 2003). Garden cities where specifically designed to reduce the alienation of human society from nature and dissolve the divide between town and country (Clark, 2003).
‘While millions of farmers have vanished from the local landscape since the 1940’s, generations of consumers have completely lost touch with their food supply. Today’s average consumers have little knowledge of how or by whom their food was grown.’(Mender & Goldsmith, 1996 p426).
The face to face interactions and the security the comes from knowing the source of, and production method of the food you consume is lost when products are shipped over long distances and are separated from the landscape (Halweil, 2002). This does however limit the diversity of goods offered to consumers because only what can be produced locally (with restrictions of climate and water supply) and with the available infrastructure is available (Mender & Goldsmith, 1996) (Hinrichs, 2000). In a society accustomed to having all things available at all times this has the potential to become a restraining factor for farmers markets (Halweil, 2002) (Mender & Goldsmith, 1996). However, research conducted by Govindasamy et al. (1998, p4) found that the most common reasons for not shopping at farmers markets where: ‘no farmers’ market around’, ‘did not know about them’, ‘not convenient’, ‘no time’, and ‘supermarket is convenient and offers good prices’. Whilst the convenience of super market shopping was mentioned, no direct association between markets and lack of choice was cited.