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Let merchants, too, sell in farmers' markets

Delicious peaches, flavorful tomatoes, sweet corn, all manner of fresh produce. Many of us in cities will be able to buy our summer goodies direct from growers in farmers' markets. But on both coasts the new public marketplaces restrict entry to farmers. This restriction is a public policy which is supposed to yield low prices, fresh quality, and support for the family farm.

Safeguarding the family farm, our cultural heritage, and the greenbelts of farmland surrounding our major cities, our natural heritage - what could be wrong?

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Just this: Restricting marketplaces to farmers, which means excluding merchants, is a program of narrow vision. It limits the choices available to shoppers and does not give us the best public marketplaces. A program of flourishing local markets, including family firm merchants with the farmers, would better protect the family farm.

Why not allow merchants into public marketplaces? Merchants coexist with farmers in the 200-year-old Soulard Market in St. Louis. Horace Mollett, a local farmer who sold the freshest eggs in the market, once told me:

''It's good to have merchants as well as farmers. If this was strictly a farmers' market, we would have everything in season. Now, I don't raise no bananas or oranges. If people wanted that, they wouldn't come down here.''

Won't merchants jack up the prices and ruin the marketplace? In my study of prices over 60 weeks at Soulard Market, the average all-market prices were only two-thirds of supermarket prices.

Farmers often charged more than merchants for storable produce such as carrots, cauliflower, onions, and white potatoes. They probably held their prices high for these storables because they could take unsold produce home and return with it the next market day.

Farmers were consistently cheaper than merchants for other items like white corn, eggplant, beans, and peas. These are more perishable and cannot be held over, so the farmers probably cut their prices in order to sell their perishables out.

But this simple pattern does not hold for many items like tomatoes, green peppers, and yellow corn. Sometimes farmers were lower, sometimes merchants. There was so much individual variation in prices that no simple rule explains it.

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Isn't the farmers' home-grown produce fresher and better than the merchants? This is often true. But the only really careful double-blind comparison of the quality of farmers' market and supermarket produce was equivocal. Prof. Robert Sommer of the University of California could not find a consistent difference in the quality of tomatoes and green peppers. Sure, the freshest produce may be sold by farmers, and the oldest by merchants. But the differences in the middle of the quality spectrum are just not so clear.

How can middlemen ever sell as cheaply as producers? Simple. They buy small lots from wholesale produce jobbers at prices far below cost. Wholesalers sell cheaply because they can't afford to store perishable produce in their scarce cooler space. If a new shipment is due in, the old produce must be moved out. The merchants use low-paid family labor to keep their costs down. Why should these family firms be discriminated against in order to protect family farms?

But how about the family farm? There are fewer every year. Don't we need to support family farms? Sure we do, but preventing family firm merchants from making a living in public marketplaces does not preserve family farms.

People may not know that many farmers in farmers' markets buy a good part of what they sell from neighboring farms. The 100 percent pure home-grown farmer is pretty rare.

The important thing is to support the growing interest in public marketplaces. These markets should be composed of family firms, both farmers and merchants, to be as complete as possible. The families' willingness to work for low wages will insure that the price level will remain lower than the supermarket. If lots of shoppers come to the public marketplace, then the sales of home-grown produce will be strong also.

Old farmer Mollett was no fool: The best way to preserve local farms may be to sell those good old home-grown bananas along with the summer squash and tomatoes. Home-grown bananas? Well, as the Soulard Market merchant said, ''They must be grown in somebody's home.''

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