Fear & Loathing at the Farmers Market


I’ll resist calling it “entertaining,” but it has been fascinating to watch the ongoing feud between the Wakefield Farmers Market and The Bread Shop.

A year ago, Farmers Market manager Wendy Dennis initially denied The Bread Shop’s application to have a table at the Wakefield Farmers Market but later grudgingly relented after The Bread Shop brought their case to the Board of Selectmen and the issue exploded on social media.

For their part, the owners of The Bread Shop reluctantly agreed last year to a restriction imposed by the market manager on what they could sell so as not compete with other market vendors selling similar items (cookies and granola). The Bread Shop owners were just glad that they had succeeded in getting a table at the Farmers Market, so they kept their heads down and didn’t rock the boat. Baby steps.

But over the course of last season they began to notice something. The rules designed to protect other vendors from competition did not seem to apply across the board. Other market vendors were being allowed to add items to their offerings that were very similar to those being sold by The Bread Shop.

The renewal of the Wakefield Farmers Market license for the upcoming 2018 season was on the agenda for last Thursday’s meeting of the Town Council. (In the past year, the name of the Board of Selectmen has changed, but apparently not much has changed in the relationship between The Bread Shop and the Farmers Market.)

The Bread Shop owners went back to the “Town Council” last week because, they said, they feared that renewal of the Farmers Market license for another year might result in the market manager continuing to impose restrictions on which products they would be allowed sell.

So, you have an artisan baker and a Farmers Market, two operations that one might expect to share more than a few common values. But apparently a commitment to locally produced food only goes so far.

It’s hard to fathom the depth of animosity between these two local entities that share such similar goals. It’s also hard to know who to root for when both parties are vying for victim status. The market manager abruptly walked out of last week’s Town Council meeting after being accused of, among other things, employing “elitist” policies when selecting vendors. I guess people don’t like being lectured about how to run their business. Who knew?

When I was staying in rural France last September, I visited more farmers markets than I care to remember. Despite surface similarities, farmers markets in France and other European countries have little in common with their more recent American imitators.

For one thing, farmers markets are a way of life in France, not some latter-day hippie fad. The French have been buying their food at farmers markets for centuries. Sure, they have supermarkets, but the French seem to treat them more like convenience stores – you go there when you need something in a pinch and the farmers market is closed.

Also, in France, the farmers market is where you go not just for locally grown food but for inexpensive food, as opposed to here, where its where you go when you want to spend $8 for an organic tomato.

I noticed something else at nearly every French farmers market. There are multiple vendors selling the same or very similar items, and I don’t mean just fruits and veggies. There would typically be multiple cheese vendors at the same market. You might buy your Swiss cheese at one stall but prefer another vendor’s Camembert.

Similarly, you’d find several fish vendors, poultry vendors and yes, even bread and pastry vendors at the same market. For a country of socialists, French farmers don’t seem to mind a little good old-fashioned capitalist competition.

There must be some sort of management at French farmers markets, but the average shopper wouldn’t notice. I suppose when something is so deeply-rooted in the culture it tends to offer a more authentic experience, not one that feels contrived and manipulated.

Maybe we’ll get there some day. In the meantime, enjoy the drama.

[The column originally appeared in the June 7, 2018 Wakefield Daily Item.]

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