Farmers and Markets Respond to Myths and Misconceptions

      Posted On: October 13, 2010

By Stacy Miller, Executive Director

At the beginning of the summer season, the Farmers Market Coalition sent an e-mail to members asking for their responses to an April letter sent by Senators McCain, Chambliss, and Roberts, expressing their disappointment in the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food Initiative to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack. They said, in addition to “subsidizing the so-called locavore niche market,” that KYF2 ” doesn’t appear geared toward conventional farmers who produce the vast majority of our nation’s food supply, but is instead aimed at small, hobbyist and organic producers whose customers generally consist of affluent patrons at urban farmers markets.”

Responses to these and other common misconceptions were passionate, and continue on, even months later.  We asked for evidence that our members’ farmers markets are feeding families that need it most, supporting small family farms, preserving America’s rural landscapes, and strengthening communities and stimulating local economies.  We learned, for example, that producers at the Emporia Farmers Market in Kansas have generated more than $30,000 in state sales tax since 2003.

In a letter to the Know your Farmer, Know your Food team at USDA, Siri Erickson-Brown, co-owner of Local Roots Farm in King County, Washington, explained:

Over our 8-9 month growing season, on 6 acres of land, last year our farm grossed almost $200,000 in direct sales at farmers markets, through a Community Supported Agriculture program, and to about 20 locally owned restaurants. We also sell wholesale to an inner-city co-op grocery store. After expenses, my husband and I, along with one other business partner, netted about $90,000 in 2009. We do all this with little government help, aside from the support that King County and the City of Seattle offer in the way of permitting and land use assistance, reduced fees for farmers markets on City property, etc. We certainly receive no financial handouts from the federal government, and in fact, this year my husband and I paid over $5,000 in federal self-employment tax. I’m sure some portion of this tax will be going to prop up the corn and soy farmers who are trapped in the commodity system that has so many adverse unintended consequences.

We all know that Americans should all eat more fresh fruits and vegetables than they do now. On our farm, we produce thousands of pounds of fresh vegetables every year, all of which is brought to market within a day or two of harvest. Our customer base is economically and socially diverse, and includes WIC and food stamp recipients. In King County, it seems, the demand for fresh produce is growing much faster than farm production can keep up with. A big obstacle to meeting this demand is missing infrastructure: facilities for the minimal processing that schools and other institutional kitchens require; processing facilities that allow farmers to make value-added products; storage facilities for fall crops like squash, potatoes, and onions. Facilities like this would directly create economic growth in our rural areas.

Wolfgang Rugle of Redding Certified Farmers Market in California responded to the hobbyist accusation by pointing out that, at his market, “many growers are hobbyists and make no excuses for it.  Others are putting kids through college on their market earnings.  America needs every calorie of fresh nutritious food we can grow.  It doesn’t matter if it’s being produced by a Hmong refugee, a fifth-generation Iowan working-class guy in overalls and a John Deere cap, or a ‘gentleman farmer’ — it’s still food that is nourishing Americans…. One grower [at our market] makes only $12,000 a year – gross.  On paper, that amount looks like the earnings of a ‘hobbyist,’ yet it’s this woman’s entire income, and she has no debt.  Policymakers should not underestimate the fertility of a simple, frugal existence.  Just because government decision-makers need six-figure incomes to ‘get by,’ that does not mean that resourceful rural people do.”

Our members are not alone. The official blog of the Agricultural Law section of the Association of American Law Schools pointed out, on an April post, that farm consolidation and commodity programs have done more to drain the federal budget and hurt rural communities than anything that might be referred to as a ‘so-called locavore niche market.’ As they point out from Economic Research Service data, farms with $500,000 or more in production received 32% of all payments in 2003, and the largest 12.4 percent of farms in terms of gross receipts received 62.4 percent of all government payments in 2008.

Our allies in the Farmland Information Center (FIC), too, analyzed National Agricultural Statistics Service data to note that of the $1.2 billion in market value of agricultural products sold directly to consumers for human consumption, approximately 63 percent ($763,807,000) was produced in ‘metropolitan’ counties and 37 percent ($447,463,000) was produced in ‘non-metropolitan’ counties. Jennifer Dempsey, Director of the FIC said “producers from at least 2,795 counties (89%) reported sales of agricultural commodities for human consumption in the 2007 Agriculture Census. In short, a lot of wealth—nearly $450 million—is generated in ‘nonmetro’ counties through direct sales of food.”

USDA’s Know your Farmer, Know your Food initiative, issued a proactive response in August by launching a KYF2 blog that provides “real-world examples of the outpouring of dedication, entrepreneurship and support for agriculture that are taking place every day across the country.” Starting with National Farmers Market Week, USDA staff in the Agricultural Marketing Service and Food and Nutrition Service have written case studies about farmers markets as hubs for healthy eating, engines of economic development, and incubators for entrepreneurship.

FMC urges the farmers market community to utilize talking points and Farmers Market Q&A found on the ‘Markets Are Up!’ page to help them communicate why farmers markets matter and to continue to share their stories so that FMC can continue to help communicate the transformative roles farmers markets play in more than 6,000 communities nationwide.