The clothing label, ‘George’, may not be known to many Australians, but it is familiar to everyone in the United States. It is an imprint of the giant supermarket chain, Wal-Mart, the worldís largest retailer. When Wal-Mart acquired the British chain, ASDA, it promptly dumped ASDAís in-house clothing range, and replaced it with George, as part of a cost-cutting exercise. (This because some of ASDAís lines were actually manufactured in Britain, but George is all outsourced to cheap labour markets, such as China and Brazil.)
This example is merely symptomatic of a corporate takeover plague which has been increasing exponentially ever the since the ‘greed is good’ days of the mid-1980s. The world, it seems, is increasingly dominated by companies which grow, and grow and grow, purely by predatory acquisition of other companies.
Predatory, and in some cases, mind-bogglingly inappropriate. What, I wonder, was the rationale behind British pest control company, Rentokil, diversifying into the lease of office equipment? Why is the Sara Lee company, famous for cheesecakes and other sweets, also the owner of Playtex bras and Haynes underwear? And, as of last month, weight watchers may be surprised to learn that Jenny Craig is now a wholly owned subsidiary of the Swiss Nestlé corporation. (How long before the slimming diet includes chocolate bars as mandatory?)
In short, small independent companies are fast disappearing, and mid-sized ones are constantly being absorbed into the portfolios of mega-corporations. Our two major supermarket chains seem to have their fingers in almost every pie. Not just food retailing, but liquor, clothing, office equipment, petrol, and even real estate. I know of one town where the local Franklins supermarket leases its floorspace from Coles, whilst just 200 metres down the road, the local Coles site is owned by Woolworths! Against this background of corporate expansion, it is pleasing to report that the public is beginning to vote with its feet, and one manifestation of this is resurgence of growers’ markets, both in cities and small towns.
On my first visit to Los Angeles, some 20 years ago, I was proudly shown around the famous Farmer’s Market in the neighbourhood of Fairfax. To be honest, it was nothing much. In a country where everything is big, you could have fitted six LA Farmerís Markets into the Adelaide Central one, and Melbourneís Queen Victoria market is at least 50 times larger.
But that is not the point. The L.A. locals’ enthusiasm for their farmer’s market stemmed from precisely the fact that it was owned and operated by farmers. The produce was fresh, untainted with chemicals, preservatives, and the prices were fair, not inflated to swell a corporate bottom-line.
Freshness is one of the major reasons why these markets are enjoying a new lease of life. We have become disillusioned with supermarkets, for we know they only have that bottom-line in mind as a tunnel-visioned goal. Customer service may be hyped up, but it is virtually non-existent. Despite the denials of the Coles/Woolworths duopoly, we know that they deliberately sell below cost to drive competitors out of business (a practice illegal in Germany, and punishable by imprisonment in Canada), and routinely keep their meat and fish refrigerators just at, or even above, recommended temperatures; we know that supposedly fresh produce is injected with water, preservatives and goodness knows what else, so that some of the ‘fresh’ food we buy can be six months old, or even older, and we know that just by putting the word ‘organic’ on an item is a justification for hiking its price, sometimes by as much as 50 percent.
In this, not surprisingly, the Europeans are way ahead of the pack, and their labelling is subject to much more stringent scrutiny than is the case here. A wonderful example is an initiative of the British RSPCA, called Freedom Food.
The scheme covers a wide range of fresh food, including chicken, beef, pork, lamb, and by-products such as eggs, milk, cheese and yoghurt, and in order to gain a Freedom Food label (similar to our Heart Foundation tick) producers have to meet stringent conditions. In the case of farmed salmon, for example, these include allowing farm ponds to lie fallow for periods, in order to regenerate and rejuvenate the marine environment, an absolute ban on genetic modification, antibiotics and growth hormones, proper maintenance of perimeter nets to prevent both escapes and interactions between farmed and wild fish, and – to me most important of all – a maximum stocking density of 15 kilograms per cubic metre, providing a healthy ratio of 98.5% volume of water to 1.5% volume of stock.
With these conditions met, it is small wonder that the Marine Conservation Society has declared Freedom Food salmon as one of the ‘best fish to eat’,1 and even Greenpeace commented: ‘The better environment which they produce for the fish not only produces healthier fish, but also reduces the impact on the marine environment’.2
Freedom Food is finding a wealth of stockists at growers’ markets (called farm markets in Britain). Even Prince Philip sells the lines at his Windsor Castle market, in his role as Park Ranger of Windsor. In fact, the initiative is proving so popular with the British public that some supermarkets have recognised – at last – that humane treatment of farm animals, and environmental duty of care, is a commercial ‘vote winner’, and that cost-cutting isn’t everything. (Wal-Mart has still to learn this lesson, and its British subsidiary, ASDA, stocks only one of the 20 Freedom lines, and that only in a few selected stores.)
Elsewhere in Europe, the disaffection with a supermarket culture has led to some extraordinary developments. The Europeans, as opposed to the British, identify supermarkets with American culture, and American culture with American politics and foreign policy. There is therefore an enormous backswing against what is seen as Washington-sponsored globalisation, to such an extent that one country, France, has produced an interesting variant on the old and inefficient EU farm subsidies. The French government now offers financial incentive schemes to independent boucheries, fromageries, charcuteries, and others, in order to preserve the traditional sense of community in both towns and suburbs of major cities. The French view food as part of their overall culture (and why not?) and when they sense that the independence of that culture is being eroded by foreign influences, they take steps to remedy the situation. If that means offering subsidies to butchers, fishmongers and cheesefactors, so be it.
In Asia the situation is somewhat different. The most colourful Asian markets are held at night, and anyone who has visited the one in Bangkok, or the Warorot market in Chiang Mai, or yet the spice markets in Jaipur, India, will instantly recall the exotic blend of sights, sounds and perfumes.
Small, family owned market stalls are such a part of Asian life that it seems impossible to imagine their demise. But this is precisely what is happening, and it is happening at the hands of expanding western companies, notably – yet again – Wal-Mart. In China, the American giant had 46 of what it calls supercenters by September 2005. By the end of this year that number will have topped the 100 mark, and with the companyís single-minded policy of offering goods at the lowest possible price, even a country with traditionally rock-bottom sales tags is finding that the old traditional markets simply cannot compete with the megastores, because of their sheer buying power.
In fact, here in Australia, the Asian equation is another reason why growers’ markets are springing up all over the place. Because the big players buy in so much produce from the east, our own farmers are being squeezed. Added to this, the present supermarket duopoly enables the supermarkets to artificially inflate prices, and these higher costs are not reflected at the farm gate. Between 2002 and 2006, for example, vegetables rose by 35.4% at the farm gate, but by 41.3% in the supermarkets; the figures for lamb were 9.9% and 22.2% respectively, while, astonishingly, the supermarkets pushed the price of pork up by 12.1% when it actually fell by 8.9% at the farm gate.
There have been two flow-on effects from this. The first is that our farmers are increasingly turning away from produce to biofuel seed crops. I don’t wish to play Nostradamus, but I did warn of this in a recent article on alternative energy sources, and I take no pride in reflecting on the fact that feeding our cars seems to be more important than feeding ourselves.
The second is that those growers who still wish to plant food crops are being forced to source new outlets. Only a few of the larger farms have exclusive contracts with companies such as Coles and Woolworths. The rest have to rely on small, independent grocers, IGA stores, and – increasingly – growers’ markets, where they sell the produce themselves, with no middle men. Typically these markets only take place at weekends and on public holidays, so the number of revenue-earning days is limited to 8 or 10 at most, per month, and the amount of sellable material is similarly restricted to whatever will fit inside a van or mid-sized truck. But if most of that produce is shifted on market day, the result is a healthy top-up to the farmerís income, and an excellent source of instant cash flow.
For all the above reasons it is easy to see why growersí markets are back in vogue again. However, I believe their true success can be traced to something much more fundamental in the human psyche, namely boredom, and humankindís constant need for stimulation. Put simply, a lot of us are fed up with the mall culture that surrounds us. At my local market, I see teenagers browsing the stalls with intense curiosity. They don’t even have their mobile phones turned on, and yet these are precisely the people who have been brought up with this mall culture.
We are tired of seeing the same shops in every single centre, and we long for something different. This may even be some kind of atavistic yearning after a past which appeals because of its apparent simplicity.
And the sights, sounds and smells are different. Farm-made herb cheeses, beautifully cured hams and bacon, duck eggs with double yolks – imagine that! The supermarket giants would have a fit if they thought the customer was getting two yolks for the price of one! (Not that they sell duck eggs, anyway.) And the vegetables look as though they have come out of the ground, rather than out of some warehouse which measures them to make sure they are the right size for the packing containers. The tomatoes still have tints of green and yellow on them, some of the potatoes are somewhat misshapen. Signs of poor quality? No, the very opposite, and at competitive prices.
And, finally, price is also an important factor. Are grower’s markets cheaper? Yes and no. It depends on how you prioritise your values. Where I live, in the Blue Mountains, we are lucky enough to have an extremely good fruit and vegetable market, totally independent of the local supermarkets. The produce is not organic, but it is nevertheless of very good quality. It is also considerably cheaper than supermarket fare.
I therefore did my due diligence and put together a theoretical basket of a selection of goods which were on offer at the supermarket, and at the fruit and vegetable store (which also stocks other lines), and which I knew would also be on sale at the monthly village growerís market. The price tags?
Supermarket: $34.55, Vegetable market $26.20, Growerís market $30 even. From these figures alone, and taking into account the fact that the growerís market produce is all organic, I think, dear readers, that you can draw your own conclusions.
1. Pocket good fish guide -Marine Conservation Society, January 2005
2. Greenpeace, A recipe for disaster. Supermarkets insatiable appetite for seafood, October 2005
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