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'In hyper-local food politics, who wins? Who loses?'

Last modified: 10/8/2011 12:00:00 AM
The recent Monitor article about the Concord Winter Farmers Market's partnership split has raised some questions about the future of our local food economy.

The article ('Cold shouldered,' front page, Oct. 5) told the story of an informal arrangement between a local woman who spearheaded the creation of the market two years ago and Cole Gardens, the Concord business that took a leap of faith with her and provided space. Ultimately, Cole Gardens saw the potential of the market and made a 'business' decision to cut her out, after two years of benefiting from her expertise in growing and developing the market.

This story has sparked frustration and concern in the local food community. Many who know Joan O'Connor appreciate her drive and creativity, as well as her devotion to maintaining the quality and ethics of the market. When farmers purchased produce from other growers to round out their offerings, Joan demanded transparency, requiring them to place signs informing customers of the source.

Her care in selecting and working with vendors gave customers the comfort of knowing they were making sound choices, while directly supporting the local food economy. Her commitment to education ensured that there was always a table overflowing with information about area food and agriculture initiatives.

Concord-area farmers have been organizing for the past couple of years to meet increasing demands for winter produce. Savvy shoppers have developed a taste for high-quality local food and now expect greens, root vegetables, apples, meat, eggs, cheese, honey and more - right through the winter.

The Concord Winter Farmers Market provided an opportunity for farmers and food producers to sell their products directly to consumers - more dollars in their pockets. Volunteers came forward to support the effort by helping with marketing and logistics. A feeling of true community prevailed.

We all support Cole Gardens' need to make good business decisions, but we would also wish for decisions that are just as good for the community. A continued partnership should have been possible, for the benefit of both parties and shoppers too. The only winner here is Cole Gardens' bottom line.

The type of decision Cole Gardens made isn't new to the world of farmers markets. Disagreements happen, and markets evolve and multiply. More choices for consumers, some say. Competition is a good thing, perhaps. Maybe those statements would hold water if the Concord area had enough farms and food producers to support multiple, competing winter markets. As a frequent supporter of farmers markets, my vote would be for one strong, well-managed, ethically operated market, and my gut tells me that the market will be stronger if it's managed by an experienced market manager committed to building the area's local food system.

A recent University of New Hampshire report tells us that our state has the capacity to grow 6 percent of our food; we're at 3 to 5 percent right now, depending on the source. Some believe that number could exceed 6 percent if we truly threw our support to small farmers and producers. The recent proliferation of farmers markets, even those resulting from splits like this one, would suggest that consumers are ready, but it's more complex than just creating additional markets.

Building a strong local food system should be a multi-dimensional effort that recognizes not only the economic needs of the community, but the social and environmental needs as well.

If we were to rely solely on commercial entities for the successful development of a strong local food system, we'd be ignoring the other pieces of the puzzle. I believe that a more holistic, cooperative business model can support the full range of our needs: good food, thriving farms, a lively community gathering place and a robust local economy. Best of all, the closer to home we're able to source our food, the more dollars are staying in our community.

What's sad about this split is that it only weakens our progress toward a functioning, strong local food economy. In the short run, it may strengthen a local business. In the long run, it divides us and ignores an opportunity to work together. We do not need two weak winter farmers markets in Concord; we need one strong one.

Sure, it's business. But good business can also come of cooperative, community-spirited partnerships. Can't we work together toward a common goal and practice good business, too?

(Eleanor Baron is a local food advocate, cook and gardener who lives in Concord. She blogs at nourishingwords.net.)


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