Farmers' Market Politics - Controversy in Santa Monica, CA

I'm in Los Angeles this week and was intrigued to see this story about controversey at one of the Santa Monica Farmers' Market. They re-designed the application process and rules and several market favorites, like the Bread Man, were left off the new slate of vendors. As a farmers' market manager in Washington, there are a couple of aspects of the story that I find interesting.

There are actually four markets in Santa Monica that are run by the city. In my experience municipalities have not been eager to take markets under their wing because of the commercial nature of the endeavor, but here the city runs the markets just like they run the parks and the senior centers. While I'd appreciate more collaboration with municipalities and markets, the story shows that this brings with it layers of arbitrary beuracracy.

It was also intrigued by the ongoing defining of the rules of what is acceptable to sell;

One of the most unusual features of the Santa Monica markets is the absence of processed products from produce not grown by certified California farmers, such as Turkish dried apricots, Armenian pomegranate juice and Greek olive oil. Most farmers markets, at least in Southern California, permit such products, which arguably compete with California produce, to be sold in their "non-agricultural" sections; some even allow out-of-state and imported fresh items, such as Washington state apples, Central American bananas and Chinese mushrooms. This is allowed by state regulations, which do specify that such items have to be sold in the "non-agricultural" section, which is supposed to be indicated by signage; but very few customers pay much attention to such distinctions.

As I've reported before, the rise in the popularity of farmers' markets has led to a sometimes heated debate about what constitutes a farmers' market. (See "Battle Brewing Over Farmers' Market Brand" for more background on this.) Some markets, like downtown Spokane, don't allow craft vendors, even though State Association rules allow limited sales of crafts. For a smaller neighborhood market like the one I manage, the craft vendors and processed food vendors help fill up the market and are key to creating a better overall experience for the community. But it's a fine line. If the market begins to take on the feel of a "flea market" then the farmers won't be happy and are likely to flee.

We tried an experiment this year, selling coffee from local coffee roaster, Roast House Coffee. It's obviously not locally grown coffee beans, but it is locally sourced, and it was well received. But if we started selling oranges from Florida, even though it doesn't compete with local farmers, it would in my opinion compromise the market. That's probably why, according to Washington State Association rules, you can't sell Florida oranges or Brazilin bananas.

The article on the Santa Monica market concludes;

In contrast, the Santa Monica market guidelines, as spelled out in a recent document, state that "any agricultural or processed agricultural product that a farmer grows and could process, such as jam, juice, dried fruit and nuts…" are "not acceptable for the prepared/packaged food section." This may seem like a minor matter, but it is of such principles that a market's integrity is composed.

The use of words like "integrity" point to the bigger picture of what's going on with farmers' markets in communities. They are in some ways a fleshing out of community ethics and values. In a time when public conversations around morality have broken down, markets are a small, hopeful, if sometimes controversial place of engagement.