Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Which Way to the Farm?

Today’s trip to the Lansing City Market was not exactly what I expected it to be.  I guess assumed the market was more of a farmers’ market atmosphere.  And while others assured me that the atmosphere certainly was different on a Saturday during the summer, I was still somewhat surprised by the extent of the specialty goods that were sold there.  It makes sense when I step back and think about it: there are many other farmers’ markets in the area and Lansing City Market needs some way of distinguishing itself from these competitors, especially if it is to stay open year-round.  If the market only offered the typical farmers’ markets produce with a few knick-knacks one might find at any farmers’ market, the gimmick could probably not be sustained day after day, week after week.  The goal of the Lansing City Market then is to become more than just a once-a-week phenomenon, and to accomplish this goal the market is required to take on a different character than the traditional farmers’ market.   

The market manager spoke a bit of the different demographics that frequented the market.  There were people of the lower income bracket who used the market as a place to shop for their produce as compared to those of higher income brackets who used the market as an outlet to obtain unique, high-value goods such as gourmet imported cheeses and milk in glass bottles.      
With regard to the former population, the market serves a function much like a farmers’ market would.  I refrain from saying “much like a grocery store would” as the Lansing City Market in no way provided all of the products one would be likely to purchase while at the supermarket.  With regard to the latter population, the market serves a function much like a specialty boutique, but one surrounded by other specialty boutiques to create a specialty enclave.  It is this latter aspect that interests me most.  Although the LCM claims to be a proud charter member of the Michigan Farm Market Association, it felt like to me that in the transition to a year-round market schedule, the market has shaped itself beyond that of a traditional farmers’ market.  Perhaps during the summer months, yes, it behaves as such, but the farmers’ market season takes up less than half the year.  Can the LCM still be considered a “farm market” if only a small ratio of the vendors is made up of actual farm-based producers? 

I suppose this is a question many markets struggle with in defining who may or may not sell at the market, and there is not a right or wrong classification of acceptable vendors.  It depends on the atmosphere desired by the community (or desired to be cultivated by the market promoters) and of the products desired to be available.  I would argue, however, that the Lansing City Market was far too absorbed with “image” and its role as an entertainment center to be a vehicle for blurring the rural-urban divide we so fond of creating.  I recognize that this is not a required role for any market, but I’d argue that without some aspect of rurality in an urban market, the market fails as an example of civic agriculture.  This “rurality” does not necessarily have to be products produced in a rural setting, but could be represented by products grown on an urban farm of garden plot.  The idea is simply that the association of rurality and agriculture be redefined in urban constructs.  Perhaps this is an association made out of ignorance, but I will not go so far as to associate rurality and community.   Although I like DeLind’s argument that working together in a physical way, such as in a garden, develops a strong bond within a community and thus a stronger version of civic agriculture, to go a step further and link this bond with agriculture and therefore rurality is just deduction too many for me to support.  Even arguing the simplest here—the connection of rurality and agriculture—makes me a tad uncomfortable, but I cannot shake the deep-seated belief that the two are inextricably connected in some way.  Perhaps this will change as urban agriculture takes a life of its own, but as of today I still see an element of the rural being incorporated in the urban landscape when it comes to urban agriculture.  And for the Lansing City Market to claim that it is a farm market with no clear link to this rurality…well…it makes me skeptical.  I suppose I’ll have to check out the LCM during the summer months to see if perhaps my perception will change.          

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