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Economics of Farmer's Markets

Peppers and eggplants
Peppers and eggplants

Everyone loves browsing at a Farmer’s Market. The produce is right there in front of you, and you can sometimes talk directly to the actual farmer who grew them. And it’s a social occasion: you can talk to other people about the produce and their ideas for cooking it. Typically the produce is priced as organic groceries are: high. But you are getting fresh food right from the truck and you get this warm feeling of being one with nature.

Tomatoes at the Farmer's Market

But eventually, you start to worry whether this is really such an energy efficient idea. Brian Dunning wrote about this last year, and this is much the same argument. A Farmer’s Market is a patch of land where a bunch of farmers come every week with a truckload of their fresh produce. If there are say 20 farmers there (and some markets are lots bigger than that), that means that there are 20 trucks making round trips each week.

And guess what? In populous suburbs like Fairfield County, the farmers all go to another market the next day! In fact, in our county there are at least 22 Farmer’s Markets that both you and many of your favorite farmers go to. Could this possibly be efficient?

A more energy efficient model would be for a single truck to start at, say, 6 am and make the rounds of the farmers, picking up their produce and bringing to a central market, where it is sold by experienced personnel. And, as Dunning suggests, they don’t have to drive back at night. They donate the leftover produce to a food bank or perhaps a community compost pile, if it is too far gone.

And that central market? It’s called a grocery store. The produce is every bit as fresh, but since the farmer’s expenses are greatly reduced, the food may be cheaper to the consumer.

And, of course, there could be several trucks making the rounds so that several markets are served at once. But isn’t that less efficient? Yes, and here is where distribution systems work out better. Those trucks that pick up all the produce could deliver them instead to a central warehouse, and a single truck then goes to each grocery store or temporary market.

The same fresh produce is there by early morning and in the stores or markets by late morning, and it will probably be in better condition, since better insulated trucks can be used.

Of course, we already have exactly this system, and local grocers have fresh produce every day in just the same way. But then you don’t get to see the farmers! No, but you can see both the farmers and their farms every year if you take advantage of events like the Easton Farm Tour.

And here’s the unfortunate little secret of our lovely Farmer’s Markets. A lot of them are open only one weekday, when working people can’t get there. So they mostly serve the comfortable upper middle classes, who have the means to get any kind of food they want. Fortunately everyone has access to grocery stores.

Think about all the energy all these trips waste and you’ll realize that a better system is at our fingertips!

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