The rise in Farmer’s Market availability is overall a great thing, but it does have its downside. First off, by having a market in every town we dilute the number of potential buyers. There is a balancing act between what is “local” and what is “sustainable.” While the convenience of market on the corner is great for the buyers, how does the farmer meet that demand. Every 4 hour market is only part of a farmer’s day. He/she still has to do the regular farm chores, watering, weeding, or in the case of livestock, feeding, watering, moving, catching, etc. Produce farmers have to get up early and walk through their fields, harvesting, cleaning, and weighing their produce before loading up the truck. Then the drive, the set up, the unloading, then the buyers show up. When that’s all done they have to pack up, settle up with the market, load up the truck, drive home, unload and disperse the produce, and then go back to the check the waters, the fields, the animals, etc.

I met some wonderful people yesterday who apparently were considering their own Farmer’s Market. They asked me, as a farmer, if I agree with the concern that there are too many farmer’s markets getting started in our area. They initially were disappointed when I said, “Yes, I agree.” But when I explained that a Farmer’s Market is a big chunk of work for a farmer, and doing it every day for different towns, begs the question “Who plants the seeds, weeds, waters, and harvests while the farmer is at the market?” There was a quiet nod from the audience. When I explained how the work breaks down, and the potential of doing every market possible, they got it, but they wondered how they could get fresh food if they didn’t have a market, or grow it themselves? So I suggested cooperative markets with other towns, which got some thought, I think.

I can say from first hand knowledge that being a farmer is a balancing act between bringing in money and tending the farm. Both are important, and last year we tried so hard to bring in more money through farmer’s markets that we didn’t sell as many animals. We are now carrying more goats into the winter than we’d like, and have less money because “we worked so hard at markets”

So what is the sustainable balance between making food available to the consumer and keeping the food growing on the farm. Given that Massachusetts has a good many small farms, but few very large ones, there is a really a precarious tipping point that has to be navigated. Having several regional markets in an area may make the most sense. Other places may decide that each town has enough population to support its own market, but I think each town has to talk to the farmers in their area to see if they can do it.

We are running into similar situations with North Country Sustainability Center. There are some towns that feel that a regional center makes sense, and there are others that feel that they need to have their own facility. But it’s not only about convenience, and that is an important about sustainable. What is a sustainable level of service? Can one town support all that things that we are trying to do here? We couldn’t, I know that. Is it worthwhile for a farmer to travel 25 miles to a facility to get the job done? Maybe, maybe not. If that travel time will give you the same amount of sales as staying extremely local, then probably not. But if traveling 2 hours gives you access to facilities that will make it possible to make and sell yogurt back home, when you couldn’t do it without that travel? Then for me, it would be worth it. Probably not every day, but regularly.

If we are truly going to reshape our food system we have to understand that there will need to be changes on all sides of the “food equation.” Seasonality will determine menu choices. Concentration of population and quality of soils need to be considered when deciding the need for a special market. But perhaps the most difficult thing that people have to understand is that “local food” is not equal “optimal convenience.” Sustainability means thinking about the true cost, not just financially, but also in time consumption, quality of product, environmental cost and energy cost. When all that is taken into consideration sustainability is a commitment, not a fashion. More and more people are valuing that commitment and recognizing the cost, but in order to really value that choice, we each need to understand the processes involved, and the time, in making sustainably raised or produced food available to as many people as possible.