Wal-Mart or the Farmer´s Market: Marketing Alternatives for the Small Farmer
I´m not going to lie: I hate Wal-Mart. Not only do I hate going to Wal-Mart and fighting the crowds of thousands of people searching for the cheapest way to feed their families and dress their children, but I also hate what Wal-Mart represents: the maximum expression of our globalized economy always searching for competitive advantages through cutting costs, mistreating employees, and destroying earth´s ecosystems. I hate that every day of the week the parking lot at Wal-Mart is perpetually filled with cars because of our induced consumer impulse to buy unnecessary things as cheaply as possible.
That having been said, my family and I are currently considering selling a part of our quinoa and amaranth crop to Wal-Mart in El Salvador in an effort to find a stable market for our most important cash crop. Are we hypocrites who are biting the hand that feeds us? The struggle to come to terms with this apparent contradiction has led to the following reflections.
The Limits to Farmers Markets
I would love to sell everything that comes from our farm at local farmer´s markets, but that simply doesn´t happen. While it is undeniable that the emergence of farmer´s markets, community supported agriculture programs, and other forms of local commercialization have done wonders to strengthen local economies, build a greater sense of community, and offer farmers a needed local market, there are limitations and restraints that need to be addressed.
Unfortunately, many of these forms of local commercialization have essentially gone through a process of gentrification. If you were to do a socioeconomic study of the majority of people who show up to purchase at the majority of farmer´s markets around the country, the numbers would show that mostly white, upper middle-class people are those who participate regularly.
Furthermore, most of these forms of community commercialization are directed towards small farmers and gardeners. Farmers with significant amounts of production of any one crop usually have trouble selling what they grow at farmer´s markets alone. A friend of mine who manages an acre of hydroponic tomato greenhouses sells at the three farmer´s markets in our town. However, he estimates that he is only able to sell the 10% of his tomatoes at these markets. While he does generate a premium price at these markets, he would gladly sell his produce at a lower price if there was enough demand at the farmer´s markets.
Many people identify farmer´s markets with the relatively high prices of organic, locally produced foodstuffs, and this essentially prohibits a large segment of the population from participating in these spaces of local commercialization. My tomato farming friend, then, sells the majority of his tomatoes to a local supermarket chain who purchases in bulk and thus contributes to his main on farm income.
Similarly, my family and I have simply not been able to find enough demand for our quinoa crop at the local market in our small community here in the mountains of El Salvador. While we are able to sell some of our quinoa crops to friends who run a vegetarian restaurant in San Salvador, we still had several hundred pounds of quinoa from our last harvest sitting in feed sacks.
Diversifying as Key
As with most everything in farming, diversity is key. Growing monocultures of any one crop almost always inevitably leads to serious problems. The same should be said of when it comes to finding markets for our crops. If we could sell everything we produced to local farmer´s markets, we would certainly take that route because of the added, non-tangible benefits that come with selling locally. We enjoy selling to our neighbors, building our community that way, and also doing our part to limit the carbon footprint of foodstuffs that travel long distances.
However, there simply doesn´t seem to be enough conscientious consumers to make farmer´s markets viable for the majority of farmers. According to recent figures published by the United States Department of Agriculture, only 4% of all food sales were at farmer´s markets or through CSA agreements. To allow more farmers to participate in these forms of local commercialization, we need a combination of more consumers willing to spend their money at farmer´s markets and farmer´s willing to sell at prices that are accessible to a larger range of consumers.
Until that happens, however, farmers will continue to need to search for other forms of commercialization. In our case, we may very well follow up on the opportunity to sell our quinoa to Wal-Mart. While we would never commit to selling all of the foodstuffs we produce on our farm to the largest corporation in the world, other options appear limited to us. We continue to sell our peaches and granola (which includes amaranth and quinoa) at the roadside stand near our farm, and we definitely don´t want to lose the contact we have with the vegetarian restaurant that purchases a part of our quinoa crop each year.
However, there is a sense of resiliency that is gained through diversifying the means of commercialization. When the weather is bad and we´re not able to sell at the roadside stand, we can try during the weekend at the farmer´s market. If the farmer´s market isn´t going strong, we´ll continue to search for direct contacts with restaurants and other businesses. And, though it isn´t our first choice by any means, selling to Wal-Mart or other supermarkets also offer a stable market for much of our production.