Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Gentrified Tucson Farmers' Markets

On the way home from picking up our dogs at my brother's house in Green Valley on Monday, I stopped by one of the local farmers' markets to grab some produce.  We had been on vacation for a week, and I had two tired kids and two dogs in the car.  I wasn't about to stop at the grocery store, and I happened upon the market.

I'm pretty sure it was one run by Earth Made Farmer's Markets, a company that I believe is run by Ed Dubis.  (I previously blogged about an attempt to start a CSA in the Broadmoor neighborhood where I used to live, and my negative experience with that.)

I'll share my shopping experience and then make my point:

First of all, the signs said the market would be open until 2:00.  I pulled up just before 1:00, and vendors were already packing up their shade structures and leaving.

I remember seeing one table of tamales, tortillas, etc.  Those looked good but I didn't have a lot to spend and needed fruits and veg.  The next table had aloe products, and the lady immediately pounced, explaining all the benefits of aloe.  The free-range beef guy was packing up (too rich for my blood, anyway, though they have good products.) 

The produce guy right at the front was getting talked into doing this for a living by another man (I sensed he was hired help, not someone who had developed his own business) and maybe because I was in a hurry I was suckered into paying $1.50/ lb for jicama that ended up being half-rotten (partially my fault because the gashes were underneath and they looked great on top) and 2.00/lb for in-season tomatoes.  The same jicama was $.59/lb. this week at Fry's, but it didn't look like this:

Then I wandered way to the back of the courtyard behind the large tent of beaded and semi-precious jewelry, and met Hector.  For the same $8 I had spent up front, I walked away with ten more tomatoes, 5 limes, two small watermelons, a butternut squash, and four nice sized Mexican grey squash, plus a bonus jalapeno. The produce was not local, but it appeared fresh.

And Hector was pleasant and engaging, eager to talk with me about the vegetables, how I would prepare them. He had been working with produce for 21 years. He said that the organizers had kicked him out of another market and didn't like him at this one either because he sold things at good prices. I believed it.

When the farmers market (also Earth Made) first started in Broadmoor at the Broadway Village shopping center, folks came who had grown herbs in their back yards, families who had harvested nopales from their back yards, a guy who lived in a grapefruit orchard and needed to unload the booty, a guy who was selling pastries made from mesquite flour he had harvested and ground himself...  there were also the solar flashlight dealers, jewelry makers and guys playing guitar and selling their CD's, but there were plenty of neighborhood folks and a diversity of products.  Prices were a bit high, but you could find a bargain.

That changed quickly, and now there are only a couple of produce people, some horchata and tamale makers, and sometimes baklava and grape leaves.  The coffee truck shows up.  But I can't shop there anymore because I work.  And it's expensive.  I once wrote to Ed Dubis to suggest holding the market Fridays from 3-6 so that folks could stop for happy hour and also patronize the restaurant in the plaza, so that working families could shop there.  He said they were doing fine with the time slot they had going.

I'm not sure of the inner workings, but I have a feeling that the cost of a vendors' stall in these markets must be high.  And the foot traffic is not great except for the more established locations such as St Phillips Plaza.  I can't see the whole system lasting until it can serve more of a broad spectrum of people, and truly tap into the roots of food culture and gardening/ farming in Tucson.  I have a feeling a lot of folks are turned off to the way the markets are managed right now.  I know I am.  I am a would-be shopper, definitely.  I love farmers' markets.  But not artificially inflated prices, wilting, rotting produce, products I don't need and an exclusive attitude.

In contrast, the Community Food Bank's farmers markets have truly attempted to create a diverse and sustainable food supply and support the small backyard farmers.  They have tried to reach out to real, working class neighborhoods and families.  The Earth Made markets have become, in large part, a gentrified upper-middle-class experience that is most easily accessed by single professionals, stay-at-home parents, and retirees.  The prices, products, hours and even the P.R. simply does not meet the needs of families who work during the day and need to buy their produce at market-competitive prices in order to stock their refrigerators with healthy food. 

Let's hope things change.  I refuse to shop at farmers markets just for the romance of it.  They have to meet my needs, too, or else they are simply a tempting and spendy form of entertainment that I can't afford.

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