Friday, 7 September 2007

Market Forces and the Market for Local Fruits and Vegetables

So the squirrels got all our pears this year, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t excellent pears from Ontario available: I just finished eating one that was luscious and juicy. You have to look around to locate them, though: I found baskets of them for $4.99 at the open air Jean Talon market, but none of the stores in my neighborhood, be they groceries or fruit stores, had them.

It was a similar story at the end of June when the delicious Quebec strawberries were in season. There are three full-service grocery stores within walking distance (an advantage of living in a dense part of town) but during the three week strawberry season, only one of them regularly had Quebec berries. One store even featured California berries during one of the weeks. The four smaller fruit stores on Park Avenue and side streets—where the owner goes to the central produce market a couple of mornings a week himself—were more reliable.

There are a lot of good reasons to buy local produce, including better taste, but it sounds like getting the fruits and vegetables to consumers is a real nightmare. Supermarkets say that local growers can’t guarantee quantities and so they don’t want to commit themselves to carrying the local stuff. This of course means that the farmers can’t count on having outlets for what they grow, and so may be reluctant to expand production. It is a classic which-comes-first-the-chicken-or-the-eggplant situation.

There may be ways to legislate a better arrangement—they have been suggested to the commission on the future of Quebec agriculture which is currently holding hearings—but an immediate and possibly very effective way to improve things would be for consumers to raise a fuss when they can’t find local fruits and vegetables in the stores where they usually they trade. Maybe then we can get market forces working on the side of the angels for once.

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