The Tribune editorial, “SLO council wise to call for mediation” (Feb. 4), missed the mark.
Among other issues, by commenting that “we find it unfortunate that the public is being asked to choose up sides in a he-said/she-said dispute that has, until now, played out mostly behind closed doors,” they are suggesting that the farmers and the Farmers’ Market Association have somehow contributed behind everybody’s back to the fracas that ensued after the Downtown Association abruptly told farmers they were taking over their market. There was no prior notice given to the organization of farmers that had built this market over the previous 27 years.
The situation now appears to have been resolved with the Farmers’ Market Association retaining control of their market. A favorable outcome aside, similar ugly cases are playing out all over the state and country as Downtown Associations, Chambers of Commerce and the like are seeing profit to be captured in these markets that have emerged from humble beginnings to become a force for change in the way Americans view the food they consume. So let me rewind this picture to the 1970s and those humble beginnings.
After the 1970 census, it became clear that small farms and their farmers — once the livelihood of a majority of Americans and a cornerstone of the greatness this country has enjoyed — had become an endangered species. United States census statistics for 1990 showed that there were roughly 900,000 farms in this country, down from about 1.15 million 10 years earlier. But of these remaining farms, less than half realized more than $10,000 in income from farming operations. The facts are that the majority of today’s farms are home to people who commute to jobs in towns and cities as a means to maintain a way of life, and the vast majority of your food is produced by huge operations under contract to one big food company or another.
Farmers markets were established to offer consumers a clear alternative and allow small farmers an opportunity to avoid some of the obstacles that were putting them out of business. But don’t misunderstand — the image of some hick in dirty jeans throwing muddy produce into the back of his truck just before the market is dead wrong. Farmers markets are highly regulated.
Ensuring member farmers abide by these regulations is a major reason for groups of farmers like the San Luis Obispo Farmers’ Market Association. And these regulations are not simple stuff. Similar groups of farmers have additionally provided a host of other enabling services (like insurance and grievance resolution), largely unseen by the public, which ensure farmers markets run smoothly.
Rather than the suggested clandestine activity, upon learning of the Downtown Associations intentions, the Farmers’ Market Association immediately launched a very public campaign to inform the city and community of what was happening. Otherwise, the Downtown Association group would surely have gone forward with their blitzkrieg to make farmers knuckle under.
There is little doubt there is money to be made at farmers markets. But the fact is that countrywide, only 0.3 percent of food dollars are spent at farmers markets. The intention of those laws enacted nearly forty years ago was that the farmers deserve the majority of that, in opposition to today’s industrial farming and food.
Mike Broadhurst is the manager of Cambria’s Farmers Market.