An “Elite” You Can Be Proud to Join

A couple of years ago a group of senators was fighting to protect major subsidies to commercial farmers by arguing that farmers’ markets did not deserve support from the federal government because they were elitist enterprises. These guys seemed serious in their belief that goods sold at markets are grown by urban elite gardeners and that the shoppers themselves are also urban elite consumers who could just as easily buy fresh food at local grocery stores.

There are more than a few holes in that argument, including the fact that I know nearly 50 farmers well, and not one of them farms on a rooftop garden. I am also acquainted with thousands of market shoppers, very few of whom would consider themselves elite consumers. And then there is the indisputable fact that few if any grocery stores stock food that is as fresh, healthy or carefully grown and harvested as what you buy at a farmers’ market.

In addition, farmers’ market managers do usually attempt to make the shopping experience educational, fun and interesting for all — especially the children — and we work particularly hard at that. We do it because we want our shoppers to connect in a real live way with our vendors and with each other at the market. We do it because we want to help them validate the decision to go out of their way to shop at a market and support local farms and businesses. And we do it because we want to see shoppers of all persuasions — even the common man or woman, because we see lots of them — learn from us and each other how to cook with what they buy at the market.

The bottom line for us is much more than the livelihoods we nurture and support, though that is the main line. Our true satisfaction comes from seeing the diversity in our markets that represents the diversity in our communities — everyone coming together to get healthy and buy local.

Our farmers also represent that great diversity. The farms they till range widely in size, but the average comes close to the average-sized farm in Virginia, which is 40 acres. With farms this size, these guys have to sell retail; they can no longer make a living on the wholesale prices offered by the grocery stores. That’s where you come in — you keep these guys on the farm, doing the incredibly hard work they do because they love it.

Maybe in a way all of us in this marketplace are indeed elites. We are saving the small farm, the family farm, and in the process saving ourselves from the grocery store, where at least half of the aisles are now devoted to food we don’t need to eat. (I know this because I counted them yesterday.) And maybe we are being heard by those who would put us down by putting us on a pedestal we didn’t ask for. I was happy to see that the new Farm Bill may actually recognize that this year and divert some of those big-guy subsidies to other uses. (You can still take action on the Farm Bill here.)

In the meantime, enjoy that newly conferred elite status. I figure if you are helping to save the world one family and one farmer at a time, that’s a significant contribution to your community.