An Alternative to the Farmers’ Market

Many people today have become aware of the many harmful effects of industrial agriculture: less nutritious foods, contaminated soil and water, foods that contain pesticide and herbicide residues in the case of fruits, vegetables, and grains, and growth hormones and the harmful effects of the excessive use of antibiotics in the case of meat. But because they have grown used to paying relatively little for the artificial abundance that industrial agriculture is able to produce, they find the prices that are charged for organic or other forms of more natural produce to be prohibitively high.

There are a number of different methods that organic and other natural farmers have tried in order to make a living doing what they love doing, which is growing food as naturally as possible so as to cause the least amount of environmental damage, and in harmony with the Earth rather than in opposition to it. Each of these marketing models has its advantages and disadvantages. The most successful models involve selling directly to the consumer so the farmer can keep more of the money that is paid for one’s produce, instead of having to share it with a retailer that provides consumers with the convenience of having a wide variety of different food products in a store that is conveniently located near where they live, or selling their fruits, vegetables, grains, meat, eggs, milk, or other produce to food companies that transform them into packaged food products, while keeping most of the profit for themselves.

Two of the most popular ways for farmers to sell their produce directly to customers are CSAs (community-supported agriculture) and farmers’ markets. The first of these is based on a contract between the farmer and the consumer. The consumer pays a fixed amount at the start of the growing season. In return, the farmer provides each customer with a regular basket of produce during the course of the harvest season. Although this model has many advantages for the farmer, it also has a number of disadvantages for the consumer. Among these are that the customer has little or no choice in the things one receives, and one is obliged to pay the money weeks or months in advance of the time one receives the produce. These disadvantages are sufficient to deter many consumers from considering this model of buying their food.

The other popular option is the farmers’ market. The idea is simple, to recreate the agricultural markets that formerly existed in many urban areas, where farmers brought their produce to an urban area from the countryside and sold it directly to customers. Although this model has many advantages, it also has many disadvantages. For example, the farmer has no way of knowing how much produce to bring to market each market day – one brings whatever one has grown and is ready to be harvested and hopes there will be enough customers for it to be worth one’s while. Any produce that is not sold is probably thrown out or, at best, composted or fed to farm animals. Each farmer has to own a delivery vehicle in which to transport both oneself and one’s produce to and from the market. Moreover, the farmer must pay a fee to the owner of the market to rent a stall or space there, and the farmer or someone else must remain there throughout the day.

In terms of time, money, labour, energy, and wasted food in the form of unsold produce, the farmers’ market model of connecting producers with consumers is inefficient. And it is inefficient precisely because each farmer tries to sell one’s produce by oneself, with the resulting duplication of numerous costs, actions, and objects such as stalls and transport vehicles. I wish to propose an alternative to this inefficient model that would save farmers time, money, labour, and energy, while probably enabling them to sell a higher percentage of their produce to their customers.

First, let us consider a simple question. Why do the great majority of urban dwellers buy their food at supermarkets? Because the supermarket provides them with convenience at a low price. The owners of the supermarket and their many employees do a vast amount of work in finding, selecting, organizing, transporting, refrigerating, freezing, packaging, and arranging a huge variety of different foods for the convenience of the customer in a clean, tidy, pleasant, and climate-controlled setting. By doing all this work, they save the customer both time and money. The downside for the farmer is that, in exchange for gaining access to the urban market where the majority of people now live, including those who have lots of money to spend and can afford to pay more for organic produce, the supermarket owner takes a large portion of the price paid by the customer for each food product, which means less money for the farmer.

In the proposed model, the market will exist not in a physical place but virtually on the Internet. Hence, the farmers will save the very considerable costs of having to buy or rent land, build a permanent building, operate it, and pay people to do all the work involved in running a store. Instead, a group of farmers will form a cooperative that will collectively own, operate, and pay the shared costs of this virtual market. There will be two primary costs: setting up and operating the website, and buying a delivery truck or trucks and paying the driver or drivers. Hence, instead of competing with each other, as most of them presently do, they will be cooperating with each other. The aim is to recreate, as much as possible, the shopping experience provided by a supermarket, where there are a wide variety of food products available for the consumer. Thus, the more farmers there are who can provide as wide a variety of different products as possible, and in the quantities needed to meet their customers’ demands, the more successful will be the cooperative’s website. Besides fruit and vegetable farmers, there should also be honey producers, egg, dairy, and meat farmers, and also producers of packaged foods such as flour, jams, sauces, soups, spices, and dried or frozen foods.

When each customer is setting up an account, one should be asked to list the kinds of foods and fresh produce one usually buys at the supermarket. Then each customer can be matched to a farmer who grows those kinds of foods. The purpose of pairing each customer with a farmer is to streamline the delivery process. If, for example, a customer places an order for green beans, tomatoes, sweet peppers, onions, cantaloupes, raspberries, sweet corn, and lemons, then obviously it will be easier if as many of these items can be supplied by a single farmer than if each item is supplied by a different farmer. However, the customer will not be limited to buying only what is grown by one’s primary farmer.

Another goal of the customer-farmer pairing is to create a relationship between the farmer and one’s customers. By eliminating the usually anonymous relationship that is the norm in supermarkets, where most customers have no idea of the person or persons who own the land, and grow, harvest, and transport the foods that one buys and eats, there will hopefully develop a sense of responsibility on the part of the farmer towards one’s customers, employees, and animals, and gratitude on the part of the customer for all the hard work, planning, effort, and risk-taking that goes into growing and raising the food that one has the privilege of eating.

There can be one or more delivery days during the week. Each farmer will state on the website which foods are available on each delivery day, and there will also be a list of all the cooperative’s foods available on that day. In addition, when necessary, each farmer will set a limit on the estimated amount of each item one has available, so that one does not receive more orders than one is able to fill. This information will have to be updated regularly. Based on this availability, the customer will be able to order exactly what one wants, in increments that will be determined by the farmer, say one quarter or one half of a kilo in the case of fruits and vegetables, and half a dozen or one dozen in the case of eggs. If there are some items that are limited in quantity and are expected to sell out, in order to give as many of the cooperative’s customers the chance to buy it, quantities should be limited per customer. But in order to ensure that there are no unsold quantities, customers can indicate whether they would like to purchase more than the limited quantity if there is any extra available.

There will be a deadline for each delivery day, perhaps two or three days beforehand in order to give the farmers enough time to harvest what has been ordered, with a few days’ leeway in case of heavy rain on one of those days. Each farmer will receive a list of the total quantity of each item to be harvested, with another more detailed list of which customer has ordered exactly what item and how much of it. On the delivery day, the truck will start at the farm that is located furthest away from the urban area that is the destination point. The truck will carry a large number of sturdy plastic bins equipped with covers. Each customer’s order will be placed in a bin. In the case of small orders, these can be placed in a reusable bag, with several bags placed in the same bin. The bins and bags will be named or numbered in order to keep track of each order, and a printed invoice of the order will be placed in it to ensure that everything is there when it is delivered to the customer. On each invoice will be listed the name of the farmer who grew each item in the order. At each farm, the bins whose customers have ordered produce from that farm will be unloaded and filled with the relevant items and then reloaded onto the truck. The delivery truck will visit each farm on its route, stopping to fill the bins as it makes its way from farm to farm.[1] For the sake of hygiene and safety, it may be a good idea to keep fruits and vegetables separate from raw meat items. When it is fully loaded, the truck can make several delivery stops based on the areas where the cooperative’s customers reside. This could, for example, be a neighbourhood park or the corner of a parking lot.

Assuming that the produce is of consistent quality, so that, for example, the green beans produced by one farmer are the same as the green beans produced by a different farmer, the orders placed by customers should be evenly distributed among all the farmers who grow or produce that particular food. This could be done in the following way: if a customer does not specify a particular farmer from whom one wants a specific item, or if a farmer is not able to fill all the orders one has received, the orders for fruits and vegetables that are not produced by one’s principle farmer should be evenly distributed among other farmers so that one or a few farmers do not receive all or most of the orders. In order to avoid price competition, the farmers who produce any given food will vote on the price for that item for each delivery day, taking into consideration what the price is in supermarkets. Thus, they will be competing with each other on quality rather than on price, since the farmers and food producers who produce the best foods and products will have the most loyal and a greater number of long-term customers.

Once it is established, each farmers’ cooperative will decide which new farmers will be admitted to their cooperative. This will enable them to maintain a shared philosophy, objectives, farming methods, and minimum standards so that, regardless of which farmer the customer buys one’s food from, one will know that the food was grown in adherence to the cooperative’s philosophy and standards. In addition, the cooperative should try to ensure that any produce grown by the different farmers is of the same quality in terms of size, consistency, and ripeness. If there are differences, such as smaller or slightly damaged or insect-infested fruits or vegetables, then these can be sold at a reduced price, and the defective nature of the produce should be clearly indicated on the cooperative’s website.

There are many options that could be incorporated into this basic model, such as a home delivery fee. These fees will go towards paying the shared costs of the cooperative. Ideally, the farmers should live in the same geographical area that can be reached by one or several trucks on the same day. But in the case of non-perishable food products like flour, jam, nuts, dried fruits, and so forth, as the cooperative expands, it could either build or rent a warehouse located outside the urban centre it services, where the cost of land is lower, to store these products. In this way, food producers who are located further away, such as farmers who live in the grain-growing part of the country or region, could also participate in the cooperative.

The shared costs of the cooperative will be determined as follows: the percentage of each farmer’s total sales in relation to the cooperative’s total sales can be calculated from the sales figures on the website. This percentage will determine the percentage of the cooperative’s costs that each farmer will pay. For example, a farmer who earns four times as much revenue as another farmer will pay roughly four times as much of the cooperative’s operating costs. In determining each farmer’s contribution to these costs, it may also be necessary to take other factors into consideration, such as the need for refrigeration and the volume and weight of the products one sells.

One of the purposes of this model is to reduce the amount of energy that is used to deliver the produce grown by small independent farmers to their customers. Hence, in finding their customers, the same philosophy of minimizing the energy used by them in reaching the pick-up points should be followed. Rather than setting up the website and waiting for random customers to sign up, the cooperative’s members should actively solicit customers in different neighbourhoods by delivering flyers to each residence, or standing outside of apartment buildings, supermarkets, subway stations, or other frequented places and handing out flyers. This will be a small, one-time cost, along with the time needed to implement this low-cost marketing strategy. By following this procedure, they will make it more likely that their customers live near the designated pick-up points, so they will only have to travel a short distance to pick up their weekly orders. From an environmental perspective, this will be much more sensible than having random customers who live scattered all over the city, in which case many of them will probably drive each week to and from the pick-up point.

One of the primary advantages of this new model over the farmers’ market is that it will reduce the amount of food that is discarded, since every fruit or vegetable that is picked has already found a buyer. The farmer will have several options about what to do with any unsold produce. It can be left to grow a little longer in the hope of selling it at a later date, a possibility with some fruits and vegetables; it can be donated to a charity such as a food bank or a kitchen that provides free meals for the homeless; it can be sold at a reduced price to low-income families who otherwise would not be able to afford their produce; or it can be dried, cooked, or frozen and sold in packaged form. Once the cooperative has grown sufficiently large, its members could set up a facility where various preservation techniques – freezing, drying, cooking, and fermenting – are used to preserve any produce that hasn’t been sold fresh to their customers. Again, because the cost of setting up and operating the facility will be shared by the members, it will be less expensive than if a single farmer were to run the facility by oneself. These foods can be marketed under a label, such as the [Geographical Region] Farmers’ Cooperative Label or Brand, and be sold directly to the cooperative’s customers.

There are some additional features that I would like to see adopted by the farmers’ cooperatives. Each cooperative member could donate a part of the produce one grows, perhaps between five and ten percent, to various charities. This will be possible because there will be less wasted food. Moreover, this initiative will foster a sense of community between the farmers and the inhabitants of the urban area where their customers live, who provide the farmers with the revenue they need in order to stay in business. Once a year in the summer or fall, a customer-appreciation day can be organized by all the members of the cooperative at the farm of one of the members. The site can be rotated from year to year so that the same farmer doesn’t have to bear this responsibility each year. A bus can be rented to transport the customers to and from the farm, since most farms probably will not have enough parking space to accommodate a large number of cars. The farmers and their families can prepare a meal using the produce from their farms, each farmer contributing in some way to this collective festive event. This event will also give the cooperative’s customers an opportunity to meet their farmers and visit the places where their food is grown, as well as see the methods used to grow or raise the food, such as in the case of animals. Thus, a connection will be established between the customers and the animals and the land that provide the food they eat, something that is completely – and woefully – lacking in the lives of most urban dwellers presently.

The advantages of this model over other alternatives are numerous, both for farmers and consumers. For the consumers, they will be able to buy exactly what they want and in the quantities they want, and have this fresh produce delivered once or twice a week to a pick-up point near their homes. By eliminating redundancies and waste, and by increasing efficiency, they will pay less than they would for the same produce at a farmers’ market or supermarket. For the farmers, they will spend less time trying to sell or market their produce, they won’t have to spend time on market days commuting to and from the farmers’ market and spend the day there, they will probably sell a higher percentage of their produce, and, by sharing the costs of delivering their produce with other farmers, they will have lower operating costs. By banding together instead of trying to go it alone, small farmers can make their lives easier by increasing their income and reducing the risks they take, while they provide their customers with healthy and nutritious food that is produced in a sustainable, less polluting, and environmentally responsible manner.

[1] It will probably be found expedient to reduce the number of stops made by the delivery truck, since at each stop the truck must be unloaded and then reloaded, which will be a time-consuming process. Those farmers who live near each other should probably have one delivery point where they all meet to load their produce onto the truck. Another option is to have farmers bring their produce to a sorting place, where the customers’ orders are filled.