Farmers Markets and Wicked Opportunities

Alfonso Morales, Ph.D., Vilas Distinguished Achievement Professor, , UCS | August 5, 2020, 2:07 pm EST
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COVID will happen again. Some public health emergency will disrupt every sector of society. It will happen again, and with the same results. Why?

Because “wicked problems” like these have no ending point. Not simply because we do not (yet) have a technical solution, but because our social institutions, principally our economic and political institutions, have not the flexibility required to respond robustly. The same is true for our planet’s silent killer, climate change. However, for both, we have ways forward, through embracing what I call “wicked opportunities.” As we continue to struggle with the COVID-19 pandemic and the food and farm system vulnerabilities it has exposed, from food insecurity to worker exploitation to brittle supply chains, I’d like to suggest one critical wicked opportunity: the farmers market.

Our food system has created “wicked problems”

In our contemporary scene, social, economic, and environmental problems are pressing, and political will to solve them is absent. Many of these problems involve the food we eat and how we produce and distribute it. About 60 years ago, Rittel and Webber wrote about the wicked problem, a class of problems beyond device and will that challenge us and compel us to innovate. These innovations share some common features: interaction from multiple perspectives, a narrative orientation, flexible organization, and generative regulatory frameworks. When taken together, these activities provide a distinct approach to the situations we name “wicked.” I call these wicked opportunities—because they help reconstruct problematic socio-organizational circumstances and context.

A robust society is like a healthy ecology, constantly being disrupted by differentiations that alter habitual interactions, cause reactions, and create new interactions in new niches. COVID-19 is the reality of that principle in action—mutation is endemic and permits fitness to host environments. Likewise, in the 1970s, even as mainstream farms and food were becoming industrialized and remote, marketplaces reemerged on the margins. They exploited emergent interests in the ecology, individual health, and flavors that consumers felt were abandoned by commodity food production. Commodity food production is a set of technical solutions to a tractable problem, that in turn is destroying our ecology, marginalizing economic actors, and alienating people from food. In short, it contributes to wicked problems.

Farmers markets are experiments in practicing community

Today, farmers markets have increasingly become mainstream: there are nearly 9,000 of them operating in communities across the country. They are wicked opportunities because they are not simply things, they are bundles of activities and relationships that weave together economy and society. A century ago, public markets were recognized and established by government to help meliorate shocks in urban systems from inadequate food access, unemployment, and immigration. More recently the many benefits of markets have been characterized, and research has described the utility of markets for community development. However, pre-COVID, marketplaces had been left to their own devices, they were not perceived as a threat to “industrial” agriculture. Now markets are wicked opportunities, we need to understand the resource marketplaces are as practices responsive and responding to myriad threats, from climate change to pandemics.

In today’s world, markets are considered essential services around the country, and managers are responding to community needs in many ways. Markets have adopted “drive-thru” modalities and online ordering to connect farmers and eaters and address food security, but unfortunately, these mechanisms only partly (at best) fulfill the educational, social, and political reasons people visit farmers markets. They are stop-gaps and cannot replace the feel of community marketplaces in the media or our memories. After all, many of us go to the farmers market not just to buy food but to touch and smell the peaches, talk with the farmers, meet up with friends, see our neighbors.

So, while these alternative sales practices will play a role post-COVID, waiting in line at familiar places leaves people wanting for the market interactions they miss. Market managers recognize their markets are more than economic opportunities, so they wait patiently for principles they can follow in designing locally relevant responses to our rapidly changing circumstances. They wait for the government to act on the wicked opportunities represented by marketplaces that are places responsive to circumstances, experimental, better than alternatives, able to meet immediate needs, overlapping with solutions to other problems, and of immediate local importance. The government should harness that creativity.

Farmers markets operate on a few simple principles…here are three:

  1. They can be defined by context, but they connect locally produced crafts and foods with consumers.
  2. They are ongoing experiments in practicing community.
  3. They convey information and opportunities people will discover and make their own to solve other problems.

These principles are realized in creative market management practices and permit managers to pivot swiftly in response to emergency situations. Market managers don’t have to rethink their business model; they don’t have to reimagine their organizational practices or rebuild complex supply chains. Indeed, they are ready to engage the government in formulating realistic expectations for marketplaces. In turn, they can communicate expectations to vendors and visitors who will help produce a market that minimizes risk and provides local products, practice in community building, and opportunities for learning.

Maximizing the benefits of farmer’s markets during the pandemic and beyond

Government agencies need to formulate rules, but those should be few. They should instead focus on dialog with managers to formulate principles and communicate across agencies to avoid producing contradictory and unenforceable rules. In my state of Wisconsin, at the outset of the COVID crisis, farmers markets were deemed essential services, but the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection and the Department of Health Services initially produced very different lists of rules farmers markets had to follow. I brought this to the attention of authorities, as did others, and the state agencies reconciled their rules. However, a responsive regulatory approach would have been best, one built on market manager/government partnerships creatively applying regulatory principles to formulate workable rules.

For generations, marketplaces have contributed to communities in many ways. They:

  1. Promote individual and public health,
  2. Serve as conduits for healthy food,
  3. Offer opportunities for ecological education, physical exercise, and social life, and
  4. Provide learning opportunities for immigrants and every other sector of a community.

For these reasons, they are often hubs of vibrant communities. Now, the COVID crisis clarifies how essential farmers markets have always been for local producers and consumers alike. Farmers markets (and Community Supported Agriculture farms) play a critical role in our increasingly vulnerable food system. Now is the time for state and local governments to ask how to strengthen farmers markets in this crucial moment and going forward. Now is the time for state and local governments to understand and deploy this creativity to serve public purposes.

Marketplaces, farmers markets in particular, promote health and wellness. Likewise, state-level government regulators foster the common good, but their pronouncements are not typically moments in a dialogue or guidance to release the creativity of market managers. But, when state-level regulators empower local public health or other officials, and when they work with their stakeholders, including managers of marketplaces, then, not only are these essential services maintained, but their many important community benefits are realized. Then we can see the importance of context in replacing one-size-fits-all regulatory approaches with operationalizing principles through public/private relationships that optimize the mix of economic activity, learning, and social activities that are inclusive and safe.

Marketplaces, farmers, managers, vendors, and consumers create a wicked opportunity near you. They observe and refine social, political, and economic modalities that express society. Marketplaces are “wicked” opportunities that we all need to express all aspects of our shared humanity.

Alfonso Morales (Ph.D. Northwestern) is Vilas Distinguished Achievement Professor at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. He founded farm2facts.org and conducts basic and applied research on food systems and marketplaces found in the top journals of six disciplinary associations and supported by $10m in grants and contracts.

Science Network Voices gives Equation readers access to the depth of expertise and broad perspective on current issues that our Science Network members bring to UCS. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the author alone.

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