What do You Want From Your Farmers?

market3The trend of eating locally, while nothing new for many people, seems to have brought some additional concerns with its renewed popularity. Maybe it’s the necessary role food plays in our lives, but we as consumers seem to want a lot more from our food shopping experience than any other shopping we do. Where we are encouraged to get to know the people selling and creating the food we eat, this philosophy doesn’t seem to extend toward other items we purchase. No one is insisting we develop an ongoing relationship with our real estate agent, or form a “community” with the salegirls from the Gap. Heck, for that matter, the “buy local” trend seems to go no further than food, as the same people who search out wheat grown within a 100-mile radius have no qualms whatsoever about wearing yoga pants made in China, or shoes that have come from Italy.

No, we have a twisted and sometimes perverse relationship with food and with the act of procuring said food. We’re no longer content to just go, shop and bring the stuff home. Now we need events, family-friendly activities, entertainment, a sense of community and added value. That’s a lot for your average farmer and a table of tomatoes to live up to.

My rant stems from two articles that ran in the Toronto Star this past weekend. In the first, Mike Schriener from Local Food Plus assesses two separate farmer’s markets; the old faithful Nathan Phillips Square, held on Wednesday mornings, and the new upstart organic market held at the Brickworks on Saturday mornings. I’ll not touch on Schreiner’s assessment of conventional versus organic, as that’s a whole other can of worms. Because what I really want to concentrate on here is what he refers to as “ambiance”. He docks the City Hall market for the fact that, “Vendors should tell you more about products and there is no music and nothing for kids.”

Now farmers aren’t always a talkative lot, but I’ve always been able to get information out of the ones I deal with at Nathan Phillips Square – if I ask. As for music, Shreiner must have missed the big signs all around the square trumpeting “Fresh Wednesdays”, where a different band takes to the stage each Wednesday Market Day – at lunch time, when it’s busiest. Which is why some of us hit the market at 8:30am when it opens – I certainly don’t want to have to listen to some trio massacre “Wicked Game” by Chris Isaak, which I was subjected to at the Liberty Village market on Sunday. Market shopping shouldn’t make my ears bleed.

And as for the lack of activities for the kiddies – why? Why should there be activities for the kids? It’s a weekday market in the middle of the business district – there are no kids. In fact, some people prefer to shop this market because of that very fact. I just want to go, get my apples and come home. I don’t need to be part of a “community”, I don’t need entertainment. What’s next – clowns in the aisles of the supermarket making balloon animals? I grew up going to the market in Halifax with my parents and grandparents, and was expected to behave myself without a separate play area or special activities to accommodate me. There might be a treat when we got back to the car, but I was expected to be quiet and polite while the adults did their business.

Unfortunately, special activities are expected now, and farmers have no choice but to accommodate families, even at their own farm. In a piece that ran Sunday which, except for the Star’s ethical policy and style guide, should surely have been sub-titled “People are Assholes”, environment reporter Catherine Porter looks at the decline in business at pick-your-own farms and the various things farmers have added to attract customers. From corn mazes to pumpkin catapults and bouncy castles, “entertainment farm” farmers have had to become not just the stewards of the land, but showmen, giftshop managers, tour guides and publicity people.

On top of crop rotation and weed management, entertainment farmers need to excel at public relations. Bert Andrews’ cellphone rings constantly, with staff asking about store displays and school trips.

Young mothers use the table on his back deck to change diapers. Cars roll into the parking lot way after closing hour. Some visitors come with picnic baskets and plans for a sunset dinner on his property.

“People think it’s a park,” he says.

So let’s put this whole “support a local farmer” into perspective, shall we? Because “support” seems to have some strings attached. We seem to want to support the farmers willing to coddle us, willing to accept our bad behaviour and spoiled demands, and our business goes to those willing to bend over backwards and make the whole thing “fun”.

It is not the job of the farmer or the farmer’s market to entertain us, to baby-sit our kids or to give us that “back to the farm” experience. It is not their job to ensure that we feel a sense of community, or to ensure that we go home feeling all warm and rosy because, ooh, look, we supported a farmer today. Let’s stop being so demanding and so damned patronizing and let the farmers do their job – to grow the food we eat. Isn’t that enough of a responsibility?