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Farmers and supermarkets

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One of the most disturbing trends in our society is the way corporations are taking control of our fruit and vegetable (F&V)supply. To entrust provision of our essential food to those with financial profit as primary motivation could have far reaching repercussions both for our health, and the survival of many rural communities.

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.

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About GOF

"Life is like a sewer. What you get out of it, depends upon what you put into it." (Tom Lehrer)

8 responses »

  1. Well said, GOF. We do alright here, as a lot of farmers sell at the local Sunday market. Mrs Snowy and I buy our fruit and vegies there. They'll taste a bit better now that I know that's a few dollars that the big guys aren't getting.

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  2. Very well said, GOF.
    When I lived in Sydney, there was a Woolies across the road from my house, and a small fruit and veg shop as well. I used to watch the manager from the supermarket stroll through the shop every morning and afternoon, checking out the prices. The supermarket prices would all be lower than the fruit and veg shop, no matter what sort of sale they had. They put them out of business eventually of course. At which point the supermarket prices all went up noticeably. I was keeping a journal of it all at the time. It was quite revolting to watch. I was told they had done the same to a local butcher. Here in the US, even living in a rural area, I can't find a butchers shop at all within a twenty mile radius of my house. The one I sometimes travel to get to tells me the same thing – the supermarkets have driven everyone else out of business. However, as you noted, farmers markets are having a resurgence, and I hope to give them pretty much all our fruit and vegetable business for three seasons this year, and do a lot of my own canning of things too.

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  3. Right on! -said the girl who was raised on a family farm, got herself educated, did a year on the Continent and moved back home

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  4. Mrs GOF and I still go out of our way to buy at Rusty's market. Thats when romantic old GOF takes her out to dine at the breakfast joint opposite.A lot of the Hmong refugees who arrived in Australia 20 years grow asian green vegetables and sell at the market.Everything there is probably half supermarket prices.

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  5. Thanks for your contribution to the debate LOM.Supermarkets are utterly ruthless when it comes to stomping out competition, and with only 2 of them in Australia it makes the job easier for them.Some of the markups from price paid to grower and retail price are quite extraordinary. 500% is quite common. Someone has to pay for all that cartage I suppose. Things will only change because of people like you and Snowy and everyone else choosing to buy elsewhere, or grow their own. Good luck with your preserving project too.

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  6. Thank you m-t Country girls always have their feet grounded in reality.

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  7. Exactly the same thing happened here in the UK but it's just starting to turn around. Celebrity chefs are a big thing over here and they started to extol the virtues of the farmers market and buying from small suppliers for fruit, veg and meat. These are now growing bigger and bigger and what we've also got is a rise in delivery companies. I order all my fruit, veg and meat from a company that gathers together produce from the local growers and breeders then sends your order out to your house. Perfect for busy people who want to have local produce but don't have time to scour the place looking for it. A bizarre side effect of this, that I wasn't expecting, is the massive drop in the number of colds me and my other half get, we used to get 10 a year, now we hardly ever catch one, him even more so than me. I'm guessing that the nutritional value of supermarket 'fresh' produce isn't quite what it might be.

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  8. Thank you Vicola……I have followed with some interest what Jamie Oliver is attempting to do in the UK and would hope that he is having some success, particularly with educating the next generation. Also that he is using his own "home grown" produce as ingredients. Really interested in your comments about the health benefits of eating better quality produce. I used to grow vegetables commercially, and still have contact with many growers. There is quite an extraordinary range of toxic chemical sprays used in their production to enable the perfect complexion required on the supermarket shelves. Produce inevitably contains residues both inside and out…..many are not water soluble and are difficult to remove. Our bodies' immune systems are constantly overloaded trying to get rid of these toxins. Without this unnecessary workload we are more adequately able to fight infections such as colds etc.Good food = good health. No doubt about it.

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