How Designing Smarter Farmers' Markets Will Help Our Cities Survive

Daniel Carmody, President of the Eastern Market in Detroit, is a passionate speaker, and entranced many of us attending the National Trust for Historic Preservation conference in Buffalo this fall. It seemed, at first, an odd choice of speaker at a conference about old buildings. But in fact, he demonstrated how important the growing and distribution of food can be to the rebirth and revitalization of our cities and towns. It isn't about one market, but about the entire economic system in America. Dan kindly shared a copy of his presentation with me, which forms the basis of this post.

A hundred years ago, 38% of Americans lived and worked on the farm; today, it is less than two percent. The impact of that change has been massive; the economist Joseph Stiglitz writes in Vanity Fair this month that the last Great Depression was caused by industrialization of agriculture, a "structural change in the real economy."

Agriculture had been a victim of its own success. In 1900, it took a large portion of the U.S. population to produce enough food for the country as a whole. Then came a revolution in agriculture that would gain pace throughout the century—better seeds, better fertilizer, better farming practices, along with widespread mechanization. Today, 2 percent of Americans produce more food than we can consume.

Stiglitz writes that we are going through the same kind of massive change right now as the manufacturing economy that built Detroit and much of America changes.

Today we are moving from manufacturing to a service economy. The decline in manufacturing jobs has been dramatic—from about a third of the workforce 60 years ago to less than a tenth of it today. The pace has quickened markedly during the past decade... the inevitable result is precisely the same as it was 80 years ago: a decline in income and jobs. The millions of jobless former factory workers once employed in cities such as Youngstown and Birmingham and Gary and Detroit are the modern-day equivalent of the Depression’s doomed farmers.

But the tools and techniques that revolutionized agriculture came at a cost. It is massively dependent on fossil fuels for equipment and fertilizers. Farmers cannot make enough money to live on farming alone. There is massive concentration of ownership (two seed companies control 60% of the market, four companies control 83% of the meat packing industry) so that farmers have little control over the prices they sell their products for. Half of the corn they grow is now used for making fuel, so the price of food is skyrocketing at the same time that the customers are losing their jobs or cutting back on spending because of the economy and debt.

In the country, the agricultural system is broken, and in the city, the manufacturing system is broken. But some, like Dan Carmody, see new opportunity in reintegrating the two. He sees food as an organizing tool for society; urban farming and markets can be important employment and wealth creators for cities. Detroit's Eastern Market is a demonstration of how this might work; Its development strategy is to make it the hub of a complete local food system:

  • Serving as a center for urban agriculture by hosting both a model market garden and urban garden training classes.
  • Serving as an animated venue for improving education about food-related public health issues.
  • Developing cutting-edge systems to convert waste streams generated in the district to provide energy to heat, cool and power facilities, and compost to increase food production yields.

It can generate a lot of money and jobs; Michael Shuman has estimated that if 20% of Detroit's food was grown locally, it would create nearly 5,000 jobs and nearly $ 20 million in business taxes.

eastern market jobs© Dan Carmody

There are all kinds of jobs in food, from the obvious ones of farming and production to processing, wholesale and retail. The Eastern Market supports 300 independent food vendors and several hundred non-food vendors. It is expanding to serve the wholesale industry and is helping Detroit schools switch from processed food to locally grown and minimally processed food.

community kitchens© Dan Carmody

They are setting up a city wide network of incubator kitchens in schools' disused existing kitchens.

They are supporting local processors and packagers to produce and market specialty products. They are working with community groups to establish farmers markets and stands around the City.

market town program© Dan Carmody

It is much more than a farmers' market; it is putting people back to work making stuff we need. And it isn't just for cities like Detroit; the model works for main streets in former market towns across America.

Here at TreeHugger, we have been writing for years about the merits of supporting local farmers, vendors and craftspeople, about the advantages rust belt cities will have in the future, with their water, their transportation infrastructure of rail, road and canal; their temperate climate in a warmer world.

market plan© Dan Carmody

In Detroit, Dan Carmody and the Eastern Market have shown how this might work. It's a demonstration of how to revitalize a community and rebuild a local economy. it is more than just a farmers' market; It may well serve as a model for survival.

How Designing Smarter Farmers' Markets Will Help Our Cities Survive
Food matters, and can be a job and wealth creator for cities. Welcome to Farmers' Market 2.0.

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