There has been a flurry of concern in Nashville lately, in some circles, because the Nashville Farmers’ Market is not meeting its expenses, let alone returning a profit to the city, and so there has been some talk of “privatizing” it, in hopes that somebody will figure out a way to make running the market “profitable.”
This prompts two lines of thought for me. One relates to the Farmers’ Market in specific, and the other is the much broader subject of government provision of public services being criticized for not being “profitable.” Let’s look at the second one first, and then examine the specific case of the Nashville Farmers’ Market.
One prime example of a government agency (albeit now a semi-private agency) that is in big trouble because it is not “profitable” is the United States Post Office. It is ironic to me that many people who style themselves “strict constructionists” also advocate privatization of the post office and criticize it for losing money, because establishment of a postal service is directly authorized by the U.S. Constitution, which says nothing about whether that service needs to turn a profit or not. Good communication is essential to creating a cohesive political entity, and so “post offices and post roads” were high on our founders’ agenda–we’re talking Article One of the Constitution here. The Post Office was not some afterthought.
But times change, and, thanks to the internet, the Post Office no longer delivers most peoples’ important personal messages. The bulk of what comes in our mail box is what, if it were email, would be considered spam, and goes directly into our paper recycling bin without even being opened. For this we’re killing acres of trees?
The Post Office delivers this spam for very low rates, which is one reason why it is in financial trouble. Another has to do with the fact that its Congressional opponents, those faux strict constructionists who would like to privatize this government function, saddled it with huge debt obligations in a deliberate attempt to drive it out of business, while forbidding the Post Office from entering into endeavors that might generate more income.
For example, since the intent of the Founding Fathers was that the government should foster better communication in the country, shouldn’t a function of the early 21st century post office be to provide high-speed internet service to all Americans? But no, internet service of any kind has been deemed a business, not a public service, and so it is left to private companies, who cherry-pick the most lucrative areas for high-speed internet access and leave large swaths of rural America on dialup, the internet equivalent of dirt roads, way off the “Information Superhighway,” which is the 21st century equivalent of a “post road” just as surely as I-65 is. That’s what I think. Meanwhile, by ignoring the intent of this section of the Constitution, so-called “conservatives” have made America one of the least connected, slowest internet countries in the First World, as well as the most expensive. America’s faux “strict constructionists” aren’t really interested in following the Constitution. They’re interested in wrapping themselves in the Constitution while promoting corporate profits and keeping the hoi polloi too stupid to know the difference.
But this is only the early 21st century, and times change. In my view, the coming decades will bring much higher energy prices, and all this fancy infrastructure–like interstate highways and high-speed internet–that we now take for granted will likely fall apart. We may again come around to a time when the fastest, most reliable way to communicate with somebody who lives further than walking distance away will be to write words on paper, put them in an envelope, and give them to a trusted messenger to deliver–probably on horseback. Profit, schmofit–we had better have a national, public postal service in place. It just might come in handy some day.
Likewise, schools and health care do not need to be “profitable.” I have my problems with public schools as they are currently constituted, but their basic purpose–to make sure that everybody in society has the same opportunity to learn basic skills and a certain level of shared cultural assumptions–benefits us all, no matter how much it costs. The mission of public schooling has been seriously perverted, but that’s a subject for another time.
The idea of for-profit medical care is repugnant to me. I think it’s vampiric for one person to get rich because somebody else is sick and needs help.
And how come all these sharp-nosed so-called “conservatives” aren’t demanding that our military show a profit? That’s the biggest single item in the government’s budget!
Oh, all the companies that supply the military are showing great profits because the military gives them cost-plus contracts, and the “conservatives” own the suppliers, as well as the multinational corporations whose profits our military works to protect, so that’s good enough for them? Well, excuuuuse me!
And I still haven’t said anything about the Nashville Farmers’ Market. I’ll get to that after this musical break.
Long ago, in a galaxy far away, Tennessee was a third-world country. Most people lived in the country, without electricity or indoor plumbing, and ate mostly what they raised. This meant that the average family kept hogs, cows, and chickens, planted patches of a wide variety of vegetables, including dryable beans and sorghum for making molasses, had at least a few fruit trees and, probably, a strawberry patch. Gardening being the kind of uncertain occupation it is, the harvest results varied from year to year, with perhaps more potatoes than a family could possibly eat one year, while another would result in a more modest yield of potatoes, but a bumper crop of apples. The head of the household, or one of his older sons, would pile this produce in the family wagon, hitch up their mule, horse, or ox, and take the surplus to the nearest town. He (and it was usually a “he” in those days) would drive his wagon to the town square, peddle produce until the wagon was empty and his pockets were full, and then use the money to buy whatever his family needed that it couldn’t manufacture at home.
That’s why the Nashville Farmers’ Market started out on the courthouse square. If it was raining, everybody got wet or went home. If they wanted to eat something they hadn’t brought with them, there were restaurants nearby, and if they needed a toilet, well, they could go into the courthouse and appreciate the novelty of indoor plumbing–their tax dollars at work.
The market was moved to its current location in the 1950′s. By the time I started occasionally going there with the apples I was growing, in the 1980′s, the market was produce hell, the market of last resort. The place stank of rotting produce. You got there as early in the morning as you could and prayed a wholesaler would take your load off your hands for any price. Retail customers were few and far between.
Things have changed a lot since then. Locally owned grocery stores that purchase local produce from local wholesalers are largely a thing of the past, but buying produce fresh from the field has acquired an enormous cachet among lovers of good food, and now the market is almost entirely retail. It’s also a lot cleaner than it used to be. Renovated in the mid-90′s, it provides large, open-air sheds so that sellers are out of the sun or rain, as the case may be, albeit largely at the mercy of the outdoor temperature.
So, how can an operation that provides a roof and some bathrooms for vendors and the general public be in financial trouble to the tune of $633,000 a year?
In my view, there are internal and external factors involved. The internal factor is a design flaw, and the external factors are the economic pressures exerted on the Farmers’ Market by our warped financial paradigm. Neither of these are things that Nashville’s market gardeners should have to take a hit for.
The design flaw is right in the middle of the market–the “food court.” It is home to a delightfully wide variety of small ethnic eating establishments and specialty food stores, and I have no quarrel with that aspect of the building. Unfortunately, the structure was not designed with energy costs in mind. It has a high ceiling and lots of windows. When it’s hot outside, it heats up and needs to be cooled. When it’s cold outside, it’s cold inside and needs to be warmed, and all that happens with some kind of fairly standard-issue, petroleum-and-electricity based heating and cooling system, which adds to the financial burden of the market and will only cost more as years go by and energy prices spiral. Oops.
And then there’s rent and insurance. Not just health insurance, but all insurance is a racket in this country, and should be offered as a non-profit service. When I was in the apple business, nearly 30 years ago, I inquired into the possibility of selling apples to a chain grocery store. I would need to buy liability insurance, they told me, in case somebody somehow got sick from eating one of my apples and sued the grocery store. The cost of the insurance was nearly equal to the dollar value of the proposed transaction, so I restricted my sales to retail customers and a few local health food stores in middle Tennessee who understood that getting sick from eating fresh apples was a highly unlikely event, and that getting the runs from drinking too much apple cider is self-inflicted. I am sure the cost of insurance has gone up considerably since then, although the prices farmers receive for fresh produce largely have not.
The “rent” that the Farmers’ Market pays to the state constitutes nearly half of its deficit, although, according to the Nashville Scene, that expense will be going away in three years. It is, however, symbolic of a broader issue, which is the way rents and land prices have been jacked up over the last several decades, limiting access to housing, small business startup sites, and rural land.
In 1971, when I was part of the group that founded “The Farm,” we bought 1,000 acres of partly open, partly wooded land, with a house and barn on it, for $70,000. The people who sold it to us thought they had made out like bandits, since they had purchased it ten years earlier for $10,000. Yes, that’s ten dollars an acre in 1960 dollars. Just for the record, ten 1960 dollars are equal in buying power to seventy 2013 dollars, and seventy 1970 dollars are equal to about four hundred of today’s dollars. You are not going to find land you could live on for $400 an acre anywhere in this country. You would be lucky to find it for a thousand.
What this means, in practical terms, is that you can’t buy land at today’s prices and expect to pay for it farming. At a time when our world-wide food growing and distribution system is growing rickety, our economic system is structured in such a way as to make it difficult for local alternatives to arise. In an earlier post, I calculated how much acreage and how many small farmers it would take to actually feed Nashville from its surrounding area. The numbers were large, but not out of the question–5,000 people and 25,000 acres. This is going to happen, better sooner than later, but at the rate we are going it iswill be later rather than sooner. Ah, well. Necessity–and hunger–will be the mother of invention.
Music: Greg Brown, “Canned Goods“