The Emperor’s New Clothes

For a decade or more the normal Saturday morning here, except on those rare occasions when eggs are not needed, begins with the first stop of a round of errands (including a visit to a truly local and very honest butcher):  the local Farmers’ Market.  For years I’ve been a vocal Farmer’s Market booster. This morning, for the first time in my memory, despite needing eggs, I consciously decided against going to that icon of locavorism, the weekend temple of foodieness.  I intentionally said “I’ll get ’em at the supermarket, and here are some of the reasons why:

I’m very partial to Quebec’s marvelous Oka cheese, which I personally feel ranks as one of the finest cheeses of the world.  I regularly buy a wedge of it at whatever supermarket I happen to be passing.  At the “local” producer from Somewhereville Alberta at the Market I can buy a wedge of “Gouda” for two to three times the price of one of the finest cheeses in the world.

Oka.  Shipped from Quebec. The money I pay goes to pay the expenses of the supermarket, including wages for Local workers, to pay the expenses and wages of the trucker or rail workers, to pay for the employees of the cheese maker, the expenses of the cheesemaker, the feed for the cattle . . . and so on.

Alberta Gouda.  Hauled in the back of the cheesemaker’s truck.  The money I pay goes to the low rent of the stall in the Market, to put gas in the cheesemaker’s truck, to put feed in the cheesemaker’s cattle, etc.  The rest is the cheesemaker’s profit, pure and simple.  I’m sorry, but “Local” isn’t worth spending three times as much as the price of the finest cheese in the world when I know full well that “Local” does not actually cost even a third as much to produce and ship as the far superior Quebecois product.

Over the years, the products I actually purchased at the Market have grown fewer and fewer.  I don’t want to pay five dollars for a head of lettuce. It’s not that much (any?) better quality than I can get at the local grocery store.  Local greenhouse produce? Have you ever thought about the carbon footprint of a greenhouse in our neck of the woods? When eggs came within two bits of six dollars a dozen at the Market I realized that my days at the Market were numbered.

I couldn’t help but feel a little concern when I saw that rubber stamped “not inspected” on each carton, but I got over it.  I’ve also gotten over the blood-spot in every second egg. But it didn’t help when I heard one of the behind the counter guys at the egg place say that each customer was limited to three dozen because “The Federal Government was limiting the number of hens we can keep in our barns”.  Yes, the “Organic”  (what does that mean, anyway?) “Free-Range” (I’ve long known that that means nothing more than that the hens are not kept in individual cages — they’re all kept in one big cage) place had been told by the Feds to stop overcrowding their indoor, never-seen-sunlight chickens.

Nice.

No.  Until the premium being demanded at the Farmers’ Market for “local” is eliminated, I’ll shop at my local supermarket, where the eggs, pork, beef, chicken and most of the fruits and vegetables in season are produced by local Alberta farms, and where every single person on the payroll lives in my local city.

I’ll also keep going to my local honest butcher. He gets everything he can from local producers because it reduces his costs and he lives in Edmonton, pays taxes in Edmonton, sends his kid to the neighbourhood Edmonton Public school. And when people ask if he has gluten free products, he tells them the truth: he doesn’t add wheat products to most of what he makes, but he uses flour for some things so everything is likely cross contaminated with enough gluten to cause Celiac problems.

He’s local and he’s honest. I like that.

I like its lot better than calling hens in a big cage “free range”.

And a final bit of food for thought:

If a regular producer has a sick animal, she can call the vet, medicate it, make it healthy, have it grow to market weight and send it off to your table.

On the other hand, the “organic”farmer faced with a sick animal has a choice between slaughter-for-rendering at a financial loss or slaughter-for-your-table at a substantial profit even if the animal is below market age and weight. Which do you expect he’ll choose?

I will no longer pay two or three times as much for what is, in fact, nothing other than fashion and fad.

Update, July 2, 2012:  Now it seems that there’s a bit of a kerfuffle over at one Farmer’s Market in town where vendors are bringing produce in from the United States and they’re not even sneaking it in.  It seems the the rules governing these “local” producers allow them to import produce from wherever.

“While many of the stalls stick to local produce, some include wholesale fruit or products from the United States, no different than what could be found in a grocery store,” reads a part of this CBC news story, “Farmers’ market feud over foreign fruit

With each passing day I’m more convinced that Farmers’ Markets are becoming nothing other than a marketing fad.  “Local” and “Organic” and “Sustainable” are labels being flung about by the big chains and the little guys with equal precision of definition — none at all.  Indeed, the green, sustainable, local, organic Emperor is standing before us absolutely starkers.  “Better Living Through Chemistry” had more meaning (and probably trustworthiness and safety, I suspect) for goodness sake.

When will someone notice?

Update, May 30, 2015:  Well, an interesting thing is happening at my “local” Farmers’ Market.  Seems a gravel parking lot that used to be a rail yard is the subject of a proposal to develop a new green space in the heart of Edmonton’s Old Strathcona festival district.  The only fly in this healing green ointment for the dusty heart of Dirt City is that the “local” Farmers’ Market has a ten-year lease on that dusty parking lot and a commitment to pave it so that the suburbanites who come from afar each Saturday to load up on “Green” and “Local” will have a nice place just across the street from the market to leave their SUVs.  In the Edmonton Journal, this: 

“We’re a destination market,” says executive director Stephanie Szakacs-St. Louis. “We did a survey of our customers in October of 2014, and 87 per cent of them drive to the market.”

87% of these green, locovore customers drive to the market.

I’ve got a suspicion that these markets are still not truly about supporting local businesses, eating local food, food security or sustainability.

I think they’re still mostly about food fashion for those that can afford it.

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