Veggie of the Week - Not The Farmers' Market
sponsored by Coleman Farms
The first Wal-Mart I ever went to was in Rome. It was vast and high-ceilinged with row upon row of shelves each with it's various platoons of brightly lit shining packaging. I wandered around a bit, and left empty-handed: I only wanted rolled oats, and either there were none in stock, or they could be had cheaper and nicer at one of the many small specialty stores in that part of New York State. Since that time, I've had occasion to visit a friend who has two Wal-Marts within twenty miles, one of which she visits maybe once a month.
Wal-Mart is many things to many people; it's often a source of controversy. I will limit my remarks bearing on its business model to saying that I know almost no large store, and few small ones, with as helpful, plentiful, and pleasant staff; and to suggest that Wal-Mart aren't competing with local small business so much as with chain supermarkets. They certainly aren't competing with my friend's local grocery, housed in maybe twenty five hundred square feet and selling apples from the field down the road. And, despite selling USDA "Organic" produce from China and other places, they aren't competing with the Farmers' Markets.
The Wal-Mart shopping experience is different. We'll leave aside the maze of shelving displaying a really bewildering amount of stuff and the effect of the color-shifted florescent lighting on packaging that struggles to look real even in daylight. What about the customers with those huge chariots. These are comparably sized to the Costco ones, but the pushers tend to be larger. I once stopped at a Wal-Mart in Salinas with a different friend and was given a sudden insight into the "obesity epidemic", an insight one's denied at our Farmers' Market, or indeed in much of Santa Barbara. And, especially on weekends, Wal-Mart customers tend to form family or tribal groups around their cart, progressing down the aisles like some creature with four wheels and a lot of pairs of feet of different sizes; and a creature with many voices. There's a lot of talking in a Wal-Mart, but it's not strictly socializing, since the talk stays pretty strictly within each little group bonded to its shopping cart.
This is pretty much the way talking works in a supermarket. It's rare for supermarket carts to stop and talk to each other, but since it's also rare to have more than a couple of people attached to a cart, and often only one, there's a lot less talking going on. I think there's possibly also less sense of occasion or ritual than there is in Wal-Mart, though I may well be misreading what is actually a sort of stupor or fatigue brought about after traversing hundreds of yards of aisles lined with - well, I often wonder what concept the Chinese makers of some of this stuff could have of American society.
Step forward the Farmers' Market. We're familiar enough by now with the goods to be found there, that we can safely omit discussing them. In previous columns we've mentioned the amount of talking that goes on at the Markets. This is real socialization, too: everything from the exchange of family news between friends to the exchange of various kinds of information, mostly related to food, between people who may never have seen each other before, and may even have to resort to a foreign language to communicate. Wal-Mart is something like a zoo: you see a variety of kinds of family groups in restricted, specialized activity and none in its natural habitat. The Farmers' Market is more like a watering hole: customers are narrowing their focus while carrying on with their lives in a habitat that, like a rain-filled depression, is transient, but part of their everyday world, being a parking lot on weekdays.
And then there's the business model, or models, since farmers have many different motivations and many different goals, both comparing one to another, and comparing the same farmer at different points in their career. The one common element is the product, fresh food. Food is something people have always needed, and you can find foodstuffs at the Farmers' Markets that have been cultivated pretty much as you find them now for hundreds and occasionally even thousands of years. Whatever your opinion of Wal-Mart is, it's success suggests that it serves a purpose. But most of the stuff on their shelves didn't even exist a century ago, so, whatever purpose it is that Wal-Mart serves, it's probably a temporary one. Go while you can.