As an organic vegetable farmer, I find early autumn a bittersweet time. I am tired from the relentless labor this vocation entails alongside my other responsibilities, and I am eager for winter’s reprieve. In the off season, however, I will miss the farmers’ markets where my family and I sell much of our produce.
Early on Saturday mornings, my wife and I pile our three children into my tired old Ford pickup, whose tendency to conk out unexpectedly has vexed five different mechanics. When on one trip the truck stalled en route and I silently cursed it and the mechanics, 5-year-old Eva helped us keep things in perspective when she asked excitedly, “Are we having an adventure, Papa?” After helping us set up at the market, our children would discover or invent their own adventures, playing and milling around while Cyndi and I chatted with our customers, weighed produce and made change.
Farmers’ markets have shown me that food can be a powerful and equalizing social force. Much of Jesus’ ministry involved meals, and the source and summit of Catholic faith is the Eucharist, which can draw together and transform worshipers of every stripe to share the fruits of the earth and the work of human hands. Similarly I have experienced farmers’ markets as a public arena where a wonderfully rag-tag mixture of people can encounter one another as neighbors on common ground. We have sold produce to hard-working Hispanic immigrants who labor on local poultry farms and to earnest doctoral-degreed professionals with their progressive political views and those environmentally responsible cloth shopping bags I keep forgetting to buy.
The common ground of the market depends upon a whole chorus of fidelities. To bring produce to market, my family and I have to be faithful to the possibilities and limits of our land, skill, time and stamina. We must be faithful to each other, as we work together harvesting and selling, and to our customers, providing them with a product they can trust. They show up faithfully, and when cash and cabbages change hands, money does not create separation and abstraction, as is the general rule in the larger economy. Instead, the exchange helps to stitch together the fabric of our rural community a few dollars at a time.
Lest I paint too bucolic a picture, I would be remiss not to mention how little money we and other farmers actually end up making at these small markets. With a customer base of cost-conscious rural Midwesterners and with many growers selling as a sideline business or hobby, the prices stay very low. Cyndi wisely reminds me that our farming is more important as a ministry than as a moneymaker, but I sometimes find this a cold comfort. You have to sell a lot of potatoes to cover a $500 tractor repair bill. Happily, though, I can report that more savvy and industrious farmers than I am, like Eliot Coleman in Maine or Joel Salatin in Virginia, have found ways to make a good full-time living from small-scale agriculture.
Americans have placed much naïve faith in market forces and other large-scale financial abstractions. We believed that the rising tide would lift all boats, that the invisible hand was benevolent and would by some magic inevitability make everyone’s life better. The magic of the market was largely an illusion, of course, and the Great Recession has been a startling reminder of our economy’s fallibility and failures.
Farmers’ markets, on the other hand, offer a glimpse of the gentler, more generous economy we would have if we began to insist that it generate real wealth, which is the faithful stewardship of community and creation. The real magic of the market, in my view, is that even as commerce becomes increasingly globalized, such small islands of neighborly, covenantal connection and right livelihood still find a way to exist. With care and patience, these islands can be bridged one to another into an ever-larger web of true belonging, an archipelago of economic, ecological and social health.
For in God’s economy, every last bit of creation is drawn toward a belonging in which by some great, paradoxical mystery, our neighborhood becomes both our immediate locale and the cosmos at large, where everyone and everything, at every time and in every place, is our neighbor.
Meanwhile, as we work and wait for a new economy to take root, fresh vegetables are their own reward.