Farmers marketFarmers Markets directly connect producers of food with consumers. These simple, effective transactions unwind the complex system of efficiencies and ‘economies’ which make modern markets unsustainable.

Effectiveness versus efficiency

The smaller farms are, the greater their yield. This discovery was first made in 1962 by the Nobel economist Amartya Sen and has been confirmed by many other studies since then. In some cases, the difference is enormous. A recent study of farming in Turkey, for example, found that farms of less than one hectare are twenty times as productive as farms of over ten hectares.

Small-scale intensive farms not only produce more food they also provide more jobs with less environmental impact. So why aren’t all farms small? Because small farms are less profitable. This is an example of the perverse paradoxes that our modern economy creates; by pursuing efficiency and economies of scale (and consequent profits) effectiveness is reduced. In the search for cheaper food and higher profits some farmers will maximise output and minimise internal costs. This is often achieved by increasing external costs such as water and soil degradation, job loss and climate change.

Effectiveness can be defined as ‘doing the right things’ and Efficiency defined as ‘doing things right’. The point is that if you are doing wrong things, being more efficient is at best less bad and at worst it is much more bad. Efficiency is important but only if you are doing the right thing. Large-scale factory farms are the wrong thing.

Many people believe that the effective purpose of business is to make profits. It is argued that profits, which are ultimately fed back into the economy, benefit everybody. However profits are often spent on creating more efficiency (e.g. larger farms, more machinery, more fertiliser) and therefore more profits. This spiral of efficiency leads to ever-increasing imbalance and unsustainability.

The super-scaling of business

Farming and food production is just one example of an industry that utilises economies-of-scale but they exist in all industries.

Large mass manufacturing plants have taken over small-scale factories and craft workshops. Many New Zealand manufacturers have shut down entirely and moved overseas to take advantage of cheaper labour and overheads. This has led to a plethora of cheap products that are sold at a high profit. Also, chains of large retail outlets have proliferated as the number of small local specialist shops has declined.

Even the news media has succumbed to efficiency. A large proportion of the news in your local newspaper, radio or TV has been created by huge news agencies that tend to have too few overworked ‘churnalists’. (For an excellent review of the state of modern news media industry read ‘Flat Earth News’ by Nick Davies.)

Corporate farmers

Unlike most other countries New Zealand has always had big farms.

When New Zealand was first colonised by Europeans (as in other colonies like the USA, Australia and Canada) land was plentiful and cheap but labour was scarce and expensive. This led pioneer farmers to create huge pastoral ‘runs’ on native grasslands or to clear large areas of native bush for grazing. This caused massive erosion in many hill country areas as well as a general ongoing degradation of soils.

Since the Second World War this situation has been compounded by the drive for more efficiency with the centralisation and supersizing of production, distribution and retail. This has led to growth in the size of certain farms and to the rise of corporate farmers. Increasing numbers of people profiting from food production are not farmers but absent owners and middlemen.

Lifestyle farmers

In fact the average size of farms has decreased in New Zealand since the 1970s but this is largely due firstly from sheep and beef farms changing to dairy which tend to be smaller and secondly to an enormous increase in small ‘lifestyle’ farms which, in many cases, are not farmed intensively and in some cases are not farmed at all.

The renaissance of farmers markets

A farmers’ market is a food market where local growers, farmers and artisan food producers sell their produce directly to consumers. Vendors may only sell what they grow, farm, pickle, preserve, bake, smoke or catch themselves from within a defined local area. The market takes place at a public location on a regular basis.

Modern farmers markets buck the trend towards scale. The vendors are small farmers and food producers who can not produce food as cheaply as factory farmers but by selling directly to the public they can compete on price.

In most cases their goods are more eco-friendly, and human-friendly, using less inputs such as herbicides, pesticides, fertiliser and energy. The goods are local, seasonal and fresh. This also means that they are using fewer resources (packaging, chemicals and energy) to produce.

Farmers markets are fun too. There was a time when all food was sold in farmers markets. In the past market day was a time for socialising, networking and sharing information as well as trading. Modern farmers markets are just the same. They are also a way for you to learn more about the food you eat and to meet the people who produce it.