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Editorial: From local farmers, an experiment in free markets

New Hampshire’s proliferation of farmers markets has launched a fascinating experiment in free markets. Earlier this week Monitor reporter Mel Flanagan described the travails of farmers who feel the need to participate in many markets per week and the plight of consumers who attend local markets and encounter a limited selection. In response, Bob Manley, owner of Sanbornton’s Hermit Woods Winery, suggested a consolidation of the markets: one large venue every 30 or so miles that’s big enough to give shoppers a choice and lure enough customers that every vendor prospers.

A balance will have to be found, but ultimately what happens will be up to the state’s farmers. They are a famously independent lot, so organization doesn’t come easy. But if the sleep-deprived and frazzled growers, meat producers and cheese makers participate in the more profitable markets and pass on others, some will grow and others vanish. In time, the right balance between geographic convenience and customer selection and price will be achieved.

It would be unfortunate, however, if consolidation went too far. Farmers markets are no longer a place where only the well-off shop. Most now accept the electronic benefit cards that replaced food stamps. And some markets, thanks to people who believe that everyone should be able to enjoy fresh, locally grown food, double the value of food stamps. The money to do so comes from generous local residents and philanthropic organizations, among them the Wholesome Wave, an organization chaired by Nell Newman, the oldest child of actors Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, and the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation. Low-income residents can’t afford to travel too far to get to a farm market, nor does it make sense economically or environmentally, to drive a great distance to attend one regularly.

In a given summer week, there are a half-dozen or more farmers markets in Concord or within a short drive. The food people buy from them is fresher and healthier, and the money customers spend stays in the local economy. It’s in the interest of farmers and shoppers that the right number of them prosper.

Getting to that right number, however, will take a few more seasons.

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