Small family farms were responsible for growing our fresh produce since early in the 20th century. Capital cities often had designated horticultural areas on their outskirts where generations of smallholder farmers produced F&V for our increasing urbanisation. New waves of immigrant farmers from Europe and Asia ensured that we had an extraordinarily diverse range of fresh F&V available at reasonable prices. Farmers often travelled to a city market and sold direct to the consumer.
An example, typical around Australia, was Rustys Bazaar, in the centre of the city of Cairns. It was established in the 1970's by a local entrepreneur who also possessed a good measure of civic consciousness. What was a car parking lot during the week was converted into a market place on Saturdays. Perhaps 100 smallholder F&V growers would pick their produce on Thursday or Friday and sell to the public on Saturday. A large proportion of Cairns' total produce sales occurred at the market. Rusty's soon became a centre of community with public entertainment, and arts and crafts.
Then, in the 1990's along came suburban shopping malls. People were attracted by the proximity, glitter, easy parking and airconditioning. Rusty's opened 3 days a week to compete, thereby eliminating growers who could not spend that amount of time away from their farms.
The Bazaar now consists of an assortment of opportunistic produce resellers, and very few growers.
Many smallholder growers lost their only means of survival.
SO WHAT IS WRONG WITH SUPERMARKETS?
1. Australia has only two major supermarket players. They can effectively fix both the purchase price and retail price for fruit and vegetables.
2. They deal only with large and/or corporate producers from purchasing centres in capital cities. They refuse to buy from local growers. We witness the stupidity of a grower in Cairns having to send his produce 2000km for central purchasing in Brisbane, and watch it come back 2000km to be sold in the supermarket just down the road from where it was grown.
Who ever said humans were intelligent.
Monetary greed knows no intelligence.
3. Supermarkets demand uniformity of product. Contrary to human health. We require infinite variation. At Rustys Bazaar I could buy 14 varieties of sweet potato. In the supermarket I can obtain just one.
4. Supermarkets are primarily concerned with the physical attractiveness of F&V, its longevity on the shelf, and not with its nutritional value or taste. The "little" farmer proudly sold his papaya for its superb taste and texture. Supermarket papayas have been specially bred to withstand treatment normally reserved for cannonballs, and they taste like something out of a petrochemical factory.
5.If supermarkets have their way, they will gain complete control over the F&V chain from farm to consumer.
Additionally they will attempt to control seed supply by patenting genetically modified varieties.
So folks, where do we go from here??
To put it bluntly in Australian English……I'm buggered if I know.
For some of us, we are blessed to be able to grow our own. Most people just seem happy to pay inflated prices and sit back and watch as they are overtaken by events. They are attracted by all the tinsel, and ignore the substance and gravity of the situation.
Farmers are not blameless in this debate. Fifty years ago smallholder farmers were often well served by co-operatives which facilitated unified marketing. Many such co-ops yielded to corporate takeovers with the consent of farmers who benefitted financially.
The resurgence recently of "farmers markets" around Australia provides a glimmer of hope.
I reluctantly have to suggest that farmers have had a spectacular failure rate when it comes to speaking with one voice, and utilising the huge political leverage they could theoretically apply.
The demise of the small family fruit and vegetable farm is now a sad fact of our history. One that I suspect will, somewhere down the track, come back to haunt us.