Why Farmers’ Markets Makes a Place and Builds Community

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After a lot of road trips in many different places, I have come to a conclusion. When you drive through the countryside and come across a small town, one of two things happens:

1. You think to yourself, “ugh, this place is full of box stores and has no feeling at all. Get me out of here!” You proceed to drive to the next destination on your map.

2. You think to yourself, “ah, look at all these independent stores and quaint streets, I want to live here!” You stay and hang out, grab a coffee, and maybe even stay for lunch.

I had this feeling recently as I passed through Willunga, Australia. Willunga is a small town south of Adelaide, equidistant from the ocean and vineyards; the kind of landscape that feels like paradise. The main street of town is a collection of small, independent stores. There’s the organic grocer, the butcher and the handful of cafes and wine shops which remind you that you’re in a hub of agriculture and viticulture. It was nearing lunch time and people were out; the small town felt vibrant and active.

Immediately I had the “I want to move here” feeling.

I mentioned this to a woman working in one of the cellar doors (that’s Australian for “tasting room”).

“There’s so much going on here, so many places selling local produce and food.”

“That’s because the city decided to invest in the farmers market,” she responded.

It’s true. Nowadays Willunga is known for its weekend organic farmers market. People drive in from around the area. According to the woman working at the cellar door, it was thanks to this that the town had exploded.

I started thinking about this and community building.

What is it that makes us have that feeling of “I want to live here”? It’s not just a street full of stores. It’s a sense of community; a feeling that there’s a thread that ties everyone together. So often, that thread is food. Food is essential; it’s what keeps us alive. It nourishes us both in the physical and the emotional sense, and it’s what brings us together.

It brings us around the table in the home, and it’s what brings us around the proverbial community table, so often a market.

Think about your local grocery store for a second. Are you compelled to stay a little longer and chat with a neighbor? Do you feel the same sense of pride when you pick up a jar of honey that comes from across the world as the one that comes from 10 miles down the road?

Community doesn’t just come together on its own. It takes work. As we think about how we continue to evolve our communities, and build new ones, some people have started using the phrase “placemaking.”

According to the Project for Public Spaces, “Placemaking is how we collectively shape our public realm to maximize shared value. Rooted in community-based participation, Placemaking involves the planning, design, management and programming of public spaces.”

As our world population grows, we have to think serious about our management of public spaces, and for me, that means thinking about food. Because investing in food and farmers markets has a positive economic impact.

When it comes to farmers markets specifically, there are the direct and indirect benefits. Certainly a farmer benefits when he or she can sell their produce without a middleman, but there are also economic benefits for the community that come from keeping things local.

In 2009, a study found that farmers markets in Oklahoma had generated a total of $3.3 million in direct sales, but $6 million in total economic impact. That’s almost double.

A study done by the USDA found that fruit and vegetable farms engaged in local food sales (i.e. local and regional markets) employ 13 full-time workers per $1 million of sales. Those fruit and vegetable farms that not engaged in local sales (think: big farming)? They only account for 3 full time employees per $1 million of sales. A local food economy creates more jobs.

According to a UK report, “spending in smaller independent local food outlets supports three times the number of jobs than at national grocery chains.” And in another study done in Salt Lake City, locally run businesses return 52 percent of their revenue to the local economy, whereas for national chain retailers, or box stores, it’s only 14 percent. Above and beyond that, when it comes to restaurants, local operation put 79 percent of their revenue back into the local economy, but for big national chains it’s only 30 percent.

This can face a huge impact, particularly when we’re looking at growth of farmers markets. Portland Farmers Market recently accounted that it would stay open all year round. And around the US, int he last decade, farmers markets have grown exponentially. Imagine if they kept growing, if they kept supporting local agriculture and they kept ensuring that local communities could eat well. Shopping locally doesn’t just put hands in the pocket of the farmer; it’s a direct investment in community health and when it comes to placemaking, supporting more farmers markets is a smart move.

We live in a world of “bigger is better.” We strive for efficiency and high production at low cost. But let’s not kid ourselves: we don’t need bigger with more choice. We need smaller with more quality. We don’t need to consume more; we need to consume better.

We need farmers and we need farmers markets. Because above all, we need community. And if you want to build community, you have to invest in it.

Originally published on EcoSalon

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