The farmers market in our Oregon-coast town, like many farmers markets, is about more than just farmers. Artisans peddle wood carvings, hand-made jewelry, home-made soaps and a variety of other wares. Food stalls offer tacos, barbecued ribs and grilled-cheese sandwiches. At one end a fellow in his 60s picks rock and folk tunes on his guitar; at the other a woman in her 20s plays the accordion.
There's a stand where my friend Herb will make you a cup of coffee from beans he roasted himself. Two local ladies sell bread, cookies and other delectables; one makes a pecan Danish to die for. From 9 am to 1 pm every Saturday, what seems like half of Newport shows up to eat, shop, socialize and show off their dogs.
Despite all the competing attractions, the farmers remain the focal point. There are often lines at the farmers' stands. We buy vegetables and the world's best spicy salsa from the Gathering Together Farm. We buy berries and black cherries and peaches in season from the Munoz family. We buy meat from the Walkers.
These aren't just economic transactions. They're a form of social intercourse, a bridge over the urban-rural divide. The people who grow food and the people who eat it get to know each other, to appreciate each other, to understand each other's needs, wants, ways, troubles.
Yet while the number of farmers markets has boomed in recent years and while there are many people who love farmers markets the way my wife and I and the farmers we patronize do, we fans are still very much a minority group. Nationwide, sales at farmers' markets are a fraction of a percent of grocery-store sales. In Newport, population 10,000 (20,000 in summer), we have five major supermarkets and their parking lots always seem full.
That farmers markets have not grown more popular is understandable. For the farmer, they're a labor-intensive distribution system. For the customer, they're a time-consuming way to shop. For both, they're a throwback to a more leisurely era, an indulgence in nostalgia.
If farmers markets are a challenge even for small fruit-and-vegetable farms, they are unthinkable for most commercial producers of crops like corn, soybeans or cotton. A few livestock producers and specialty-crop farmers have direct contracts with supermarket chains or restaurants, but most farmers have little choice but to work with intermediaries -- grain elevators, meat-packing plants, food processors and wholesalers.
These farmers have little or no direct contact with those who eat what they grow, or what it's been processed into. They don't get to talk to the consumer. They don't have a finger on the consumer's pulse.
Is that a problem? When it comes down to it, aren't most farmers going to grow what the local elevator or ethanol plant or packer will pay them to grow? Even if changing consumer demand is shaking the world of the supermarkets and fast-food chains, won't farmers find out what they need to know about it soon enough?
Probably. But nothing beats direct human contact for promoting understanding -- the kind of understanding that can provide farmers with ideas for new business opportunities and consumers with a better understanding of the realities of agriculture.
That's why, lacking the possibility of selling at farmers markets, some farmers look for other ways to meet the public face to face. For opportunities to advocate for agriculture. For opportunities to hear what's on the consumer's mind.
One of the deepest divides in this deeply divided country is the one between urban and rural America. The more people on both sides can do to close that gap, the better.
If you're interested in learning more about changing consumer tastes, that's yet another reason to consider attending the Ag Summit this December in Chicago. "Food Fight" is on the agenda for this year's Ag Summit, the 11th hosted by DTN/The Progressive Farmer. You'll hear a panel of food-industry experts discussing what consumers are thinking now and how they're forcing agriculture to adjust.
And that's not all. The Ag Summit offers great farm-business insights and great opportunities to network with hundreds of producers from around the country. For details on dates, venue, the agenda and how to sign up, go to http://www.cvent.com/…
Urban Lehner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org