Farmer’s Markets are radical?
Fall is here and farmer’s markets will soon be closing for the season. Realizing that I will be forced back into supermarkets for my sustenance I have been pondering what is it that makes farmer’s markets unique. My pondering led me to Jürgen Habermas’s ideas of a “representational culture” and the “public sphere”. I think the marketing of food within the conventional food system (i.e. in supermarkets) can be understood through the lens of a representational culture. That is, the powerful companies in the U.S. food system (Kraft, General Mills, PepsiCo, Dole, etc.) have successfully overwhelmed consumers with massive advertising campaigns — such that the average consumer receives little of the important information about his/her food purchases (where it was grown, how it was processed, what chemicals were used in its cultivation, etc.). This trend has led to a dynamic in which consumers are unable to exert their agency as rational actors. I believe farmer’s markets signify a response to representational culture.
In the last 20 years or more we have seen larger growth in local farmers’ markets, which can be conceived as a reincarnation of a form of public sphere that used to be prevalent throughout the U.S. The farmers’ market is conceived not only as a gathering place (as supermarkets, in a sense, serve that function too), but also as an opportunity for various stakeholders to build community and deep understanding — a potentially radical experience in such a deeply estranged modern society. The information provided at farmers’ markets is generally stripped of the trappings of the dominant representational food culture, yet the key pieces of information about a food purchase, necessary for a truly rational decision, are all available.
In contrast, go into any supermarket, and you are deluged with a diversity of products yet lack information regarding production and content. The average supermarket contains 50,000 products. On a recent trip to a supermarket, I counted 55 independently-marketed shapes and sizes of popcorn packages, 69 sports drinks, and an incredible 267 different ways of packaging and marketing crackers. A customer who seeks a box of microwavable popcorn has, among many other options, their choice of Butter, Extra Butter, Ultimate Butter, or Movie Theater Butter. The conventional economic view is that all of these iterations of popcorn are fulfilling the nuances of consumer demand. However, as those of us who live in the real world are well-aware, many of these “demands” are in fact themselves products of the marketing industry. While it seems that this array of products is truly an expression of the diversity inherent in a public sphere, in fact it is a “representational” publicness, a social structure that is meant to look like a public sphere, but is in fact a clever manipulation.
The industrial food economy has clearly created an alienation of consumers from their food purchases, and the growing farmers’ market movement reexamines this process (intentionally and unintentionally). The setting of these markets itself, which embodies a culture of openness, becomes just as important as the aims of market-goers (quality, price, social engagement). The atmosphere of the farmer’s market is both intentionally radical (in its ability to skirt main-stream marketing strategies) and potentially radical (in the face-to-face exchanges market-goers engage in). Reawakening the spirit of Habermas as farmer’s markets begin closing for the season is an enjoyable sociological exercise.
Market Day in Provence by Michele de La Pradelle