Some people would be surprised to learn that the fruits and vegetables at their local farmers’ market weren’t grown by the people who sell them. Their surprise might turn to shock if they discovered that the produce wasn’t even grown in the same state. The practice of reselling produce at the nation’s nearly 8,000 farmers’ markets is increasingly common, and it has sparked a great deal of controversy.
To some consumers, the practice of reselling produce violates their assumptions about the vendors at the market. Jennifer Ramey, a farmers’ market customer in Gainesville, Florida, said that she goes to farmers’ markets because she “likes to support local farmers” and wouldn’t buy produce there if it wasn’t local. Another customer agreed, saying, “I can just go to the grocery store for any of the resold produce.” These sentiments are shared by Stacy Miller, the project director for the national Farmers Market Coalition. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, she said, “We really need to protect the image of farmers markets as places that foster community, that support local farmers and that provide access points for healthy food in neighborhoods. Without all of those things, is it really a farmers market?”
Reactions among farmers have been mixed. Many growers resent resellers for buying bulk product from out-of-state and undercutting their prices at the markets. Others agree with concerned consumers that resellers violate the core principle of farmers’ markets supporting local growers. However, some farmers appreciate the option to resell others’ goods. Some have bought vegetables and fruits from local auctions and resold it during particularly bad growing seasons. Others sell resold produce along with the produce they grew themselves in order to diversify their displays. Still others resell vegetables they bought from local farmers who don’t have time to go to the markets themselves.
Resale at farmers’ markets is not tolerated everywhere. Both California and Oregon have banned it entirely, requiring all market vendors to sell what they grow or make. According to the USDA, 63% of American farmers’ markets have also banned reselling. However, farmers’ markets are often run by organizations that lack the resources to enforce these rules, and vendors aren’t always honest about their goods. In 2010, a local scandal erupted in Southern California when a vendor was found to be passing off Mexican-grown produce as local. In Pocatello, Idaho, the president of the farmers’ market found three vendors who were buying goods from Costco and Sam’s Club and then reselling them at the market.
The questions about what defines a farmers’ market -- and who is allowed to sell there -- highlight the tensions between the logics of the price system of exchange and the communal system of exchange. Many customers display communal logics when they refuse to buy produce from non-local vendors or people who didn’t grow what they sell; exchange under the communal system depends on the identities of the actors and the relationship between them, and in this case, many consumers prioritize exchanges with growers who come from the same community and have a personal connection with the products they sell. For these consumers, the identity of the vendor is just as important as the price and quality of their produce. However, not everyone sees farmers’ markets as sites for communal exchange. Some growers believe that as long as they have a license to sell at farmers’ markets and the customers continue to come, they should be able to sell whatever they want. This mentality reflects the logic of the price system of exchange, which assumes that market actors are autonomous and exchanges are based on the criteria of price and quality rather than the social identities of the actors. Until the federal government issues universal rules for farmers’ markets, consumers who are motivated by communal concerns will need to push for local regulations and ask questions of their market vendors.
- Irizarry, Lauren. 2008. “Farmers Market Sees Out-of-State Food Influx.” The Alligator, December 2. Retrieved January 23, 2013 (http://www.alligator.org/news/features/article_28df3d72-e805-5af4-8718-ccddb795149a.html).
- Etter, Lauren. 2010. “Food for Thought: Do You Need Farmers for a Farmers Market?” The Wall Street Journal, April 29. Retrieved January 23, 2013 (http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703404004575198270918567074.html).
- Karp, David. 2010. “Cheating Scandal Rocks Farmers Market: Was Mexican Produce Passed Off as Locally Grown?” The Los Angeles Times, November 6. Retrieved January 23, 2013 (http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/lanow/2010/11/cheating-scandal-rocks-farmers-market-was-mexican-produce-passed-off-as-locally-grown.html).
- O’Connell, John. 2012. “Farmers’ Markets Tighten Resale Rules.” Capital Press, April 19. Retrieved January 23, 2013 (http://www.capitalpress.com/content/JO-FarmersMarkets-041812)
- Biggart, Nicole and Rick Delbridge. (2004). “Systems of Exchange.” Academy of Management Review 29(1): pp. 28-49.
Image by Gemma Billings.