Monday, July 6, 2009

Farmers' Markets Versus Grocery Stores

Thomas Jefferson saw himself as a farmer before all else, seeing his political work merely as a regrettable burden he would rather have done without. He was always happiest when he was supervising the agricultural activities at Monticello, and his letters during his years in political office are filled with expressions of how much he would rather be at home on his farm with his hands in the soil.

Identifying himself with the American farmer, he believed that the unique virtues of the American character derived from the agricultural class. He put it most profoundly in Notes on the State of Virginia, where he wrote:
Those who labor in the Earth are the chosen people of God, if ever He had a chosen people, whose breasts He has made His peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue. It is the focus which keeps alive that sacred fire which otherwise might escape from the face of the Earth.
In Jefferson's time, nine out of ten Americans were self-sufficient farmers. This gave them an independence that modern Americans can hardly imagine, for even if they were entirely cut off from the rest of society, they could still produce their own food and therefore would not go hungry. In our time, if the nation's grocery stores and take-out restaurants magically vanished, the result would be immediate mass starvation. The American people today are utterly dependent upon agribusiness corporations for their supply of food, and that means that they are not truly free.

Today, the idea of ordinary citizens living on their own farms has been reduced to a quaint notion from centuries past. The ideal of the yeoman farmer-citizen, so dear to Jefferson's heart, seems to be fading away. And by allowing themselves to become dependent upon agribusiness corporations for their supply of food, the American people are allowing their freedom to slip away. But perhaps there is cause for hope.

In recent years, there has been a sharp increase in the popularity of farmers' markets throughout the nation. These public outdoor markets allow farmers in a region surrounding large urban areas to bring their produce to the city folk, circumventing the middle-man of the corporate grocery store. According to the Department of Agriculture, the number of farmers' markets has risen from 1,755 in 1994 to 4,685 in 2008, and the trend is continuing.

The question of whether to buy food from a corporate grocery store or a farmers' market is an important one for 21st Century Jeffersonians. The food one purchases in an ordinary grocery store is rarely organic; the meat usually comes from animals pumped full of growth hormones and antibiotics, and the produce comes from fields sprayed with chemicals, the health effects of which we scarcely understand. Almost all of the produce comes from far away, perhaps from the other side of the planet, whose long journey to the store shelf saps the food of any freshness it might have had. Not only that, but the transport costs of the food contribute to our national dependence upon foreign oil and increase the destructive effects of global climate change. Hardly a penny of the profits made at corporate grocery stores end up going to farmers themselves, but rather to corporate bureaucrats who have likely never seen a farm in all their lives.

By contrast, the produce sold at farmers' markets comes from small farmers rather than massive agribusiness operations. It is mostly organic and always locally-grown. The freshness of the produce sold at these markets cannot be bettered. Since the farmers can sell their produce directly to consumers, the middle-man is cut out and all the profits from the sale of the produce stay with the farmer. Simply put, eating a meal composed of ingredients purchased at a farmers' market is a fundamentally Jeffersonian act.

From a Jeffersonian point of view, any dollar that is usefully spent outside the prevailing corporate economic structure is a good thing. Farmers' markets are an ideal way for citizens to purchase the meat and produce they need, while supporting traditional family farms. They are also a way for communities to come together in a civic atmosphere, in a manner that no corporate grocery store could ever dream of.

A wonderful website, Local Harvest, provides a complete listing of farmers' markets in America, including a search engine to find the market nearest to your address. In addition, it provides a listing of restaurants that purchase their meat and produce from local farms, as well as farms which sell directly to local consumers.

21st Century Jeffersonians should, as much as possible, boycott corporate chain grocery stores in favor of traditional farmers' markets. By doing so, we strike a blow against the anti-Jeffersonian forces of the prevailing corporatist economy and help sustain and restore the traditional family farm, which Jefferson felt was a key to the survival of American democracy.

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