IS progress taking the farmers out of farmers markets? And is that a bad thing?
In Northern California, a prominent farmer announced on his blog last week that he is quitting San Francisco's landmark Ferry Plaza farmers market.
The day before, one of the most important figures in Southern California markets surprised an audience at a panel discussion by predicting that in the not-too-distant future, we won't have farmers markets as we now know them.
"As a business model, farmers markets couldn't be more inefficient," says Howell Tumlin, executive director of the Southland Farmers' Market Assn.
Farmers markets have changed American agriculture dramatically, even to the point that many ideas that once seemed radical now are accepted by even mainstream growers and supermarkets. But at the same time, this success has brought growing pains.
What made sense when markets were few and far between doesn't work nearly as well today, when there are almost 100 in Southern California alone.
This explosive growth has been a boon for small family farmers and for their customers, who now have easy access to high-quality fruits and vegetables. But it raises the question that if farmers are kept busy going to all those markets, when do they find time to grow anything?
That goes to the heart of Tumlin's concerns about the markets' future. Though he recognizes that the face-to-face interaction with farmers is one of the benefits that draws customers to the market, he points out that this luxury comes at a high price. It's like a chef having to stop cooking in order to hand-deliver every plate.
"I don't think people realize that literally someone left their farm and spent a whole day driving in to be able to sell to them," he says. "Wouldn't that time be better spent working in the fields?"
It wasn't so bad when each farmer went to only one or two markets a week. But now, when many of them are hitting seven or eight or even more, that inefficiency can become crippling.
The prospect of a farmer-less farmers market may cause dismay, but it's already happening. Except at the biggest and most popular markets, the majority of the people working the stands are not the farmers themselves but employees (granted, some of them seem to know every bit as much about their products as their bosses).
But even as farmers markets change, that doesn't mean we're heading back to the old industrial-style agriculture. The fact is, there are at least three possible alternatives to the current system that are already being explored.
Call them second-generation farmers markets. None of them is perfect, but each offers some significant advantages.
One possible alternative to all these floating once-a-week markets would be the opening of additional permanent farmers market structures that would be open all day, every day -- something like San Francisco's Ferry Plaza or Seattle's Pike Place. Tumlin says it won't be long before that happens in Southern California.
"Some city like Santa Monica will step up and create some kind of public-private venture to open a market that will operate on more than a four-hour-a-week basis," he says. "And I do think if you had a seven-day regional market, people would come from all over."
But permanent markets are not sure-fire cures, as some farmers at Ferry Plaza have found. Their very popularity can become a curse.
"As Ferry Plaza got bigger, it changed," says Mariquita Farm's Andy Griffin, who has attracted a national audience for his blog "The Ladybug Letter" (www.ladybugletter.com). Griffin had been selling at farmers markets for more than 20 years before quitting last week.
Almost as soon as it opened, Ferry Plaza became a popular tourist destination.
"A lot of the people who were coming were not looking for things to fix for dinner that night," Griffin says. "They were looking for the farmers market experience, but they weren't really into buying a lot of fruits and vegetables.
"Some farmers did a bang-up job adapting. They figured if they weren't going to sell as many vegetables, maybe they'd switch to lavender and then they can sell lavender bath salts too. And if the customer didn't want to carry it back to their hotel room, they could have it FedExed back to their home in Vermont.
"But that wasn't something I wanted to do."
Indeed, keeping farmers markets centered on produce, as opposed to turning them into street fairs starring arts and crafts and prepared foods is one of Tumlin's biggest concerns. His organization has repeatedly -- and so far fruitlessly -- proposed a regulation that its farmers markets must be 75% farmers. But others are afraid of losing the foot traffic that comes with the street fair atmosphere.