The Farmers’ Market Book: Growing Food, Cultivating Community
By Jennifer Meta Robinson and J. A. Hartenfeld
Reviewed by Rachel Black
University of Gastronomic Sciences, Italy
Farmers’ markets in North America have been making a tremendous comeback. This certainly says a lot about the growing trend of North Americans who would like to reconnect with their food. Meeting the person who grew the carrots you are about to purchase and discussing the growing season with the farmer certainly has the effect of bringing the consumer closer to food production. For this reason, Robinson and Hartenfeld’s book is a timely contribution to the discussion on local food and the popularity of farmers’ markets in the United States.
Jennifer Meta Robinson and her husband J.A. Hartenfeld are both academics and farmers’ market participants, who have been deeply involved in the Bloomington Farmers’ Market in Indiana. The authors’ personal involvement in farming and farmers’ markets makes this an extremely engaged book that attempts to capture all aspects of these age-old institutions, from the field to the table. Robinson and Hartenfeld successfully portray the challenges and triumphs of the modern-day farmers’ markets.
Punctuated by ethnographic ‘vendor notes’, this book is organized into three parts. Part one, “Settings”, gives a very brief history of markets all over the world and then narrows in on the development of markets in the United States. The next section “New Markets” goes on to talk about the persistence of farmers’ markets and their recent history and trends that have affected markets. This is followed by background information on the Bloomington Farmers’ Market and a description of this market, which is the focus of the book.
Part two, “People”, looks at farmers’ markets from many different perspectives: customers, vendors and different generations of market-goers. The authors do an excellent job of giving voice to the people who make the market. This book tries to dispel the common assumption that farmers’ markets are now just another luxury shopping experience for the affluent. A good case is made for the universal appeal of markets and their ability to build community ties: “Farmers’ markets can play a civic role in bring people together in familiar ways that become special.” (125) This is particularly true for the connections that are created between the rural and the urban.
In part three, “Harvests”, the authors talk about the people who are challenging industrial models of farming and food distribution. New farmers are those who are returning to the land because they believe that there must be another way to live and take care of their land and community. Often these folks are throwing off industrial models of farming that they have drawn into question. In all cases, it is not an easy life and the profit margins tend to be slim. However it is not all doom and gloom, Robinson and Hartenfeld manage to capture the satisfaction that these farmers feel when they bring their wares to market: gratification often comes in the simple form of a customers’ smile or a simple thank you. This book also asks difficult questions such as who will be the new farmers in the future? In chapter eight, “Market Futures” the authors use a meeting between the various actors at the Bloomington Farmers’ market as a window onto the main concerns for the future of markets. Many of the children of current growers have little interest in carrying on their parents’ hard work (218). This may be one of the markets’ biggest challenges in years to come.
In conclusion the authors put an emphasis on the role of individuals in creating a farmers’ market. It is this individual will to be part of a greater whole that makes the market possible (238). Overall this book makes a very convincing case for the social importance of farmers’ market in North America. These institutions are essential for supporting small-scale farming, which constantly faces challenges from cheap industrial farm produce. Farmers’ markets are essential in reminding consumers of the true value of food, It reminds them of the human labor involved as well as the fact that the acts growing food and eating are also about care for community and stewardship of the land.
Appropriate for a wide readership, the many color photos of markets, people and farms make this a visually pleasing book. It is written in very accessible language and the inclusion of many ethnographic voices make it a lively read. From an academic perspective, the fieldwork and experience of the authors is impressive. At the same, time there is a lack in theoretical analysis that leaves the academic reader wanting a little more critical depth. This reader also found the historical background on markets somewhat incomplete and a little too general. That said, the focus on the Bloomington Farmers’ Market is very successful and the writing style brings the market to life. The authors tap into the thoughts, hopes and fears of the people who make the market.
As discussions of local food and sustainable foodways takes center stage in the media, this book on farmers’ markets is a welcome addition to the limited literature on alternate food distribution and production. In the authors’ words, “Markets present the possibility of common ground for a diverse society.” (5) This book makes an excellent case for supporting local farmers’ market and growers.