The Magic of the Market

As an organic vegetable farmer, I find early autumn a bittersweet time. I am tired from the relentless labor this vocation entails alongside my other responsibilities, and I am eager for winter’s reprieve. In the off season, however, I will miss the farmers’ markets where my family and I sell much of our produce.

Early on Saturday mornings, my wife and I pile our three children into my tired old Ford pickup, whose tendency to conk out unexpectedly has vexed five different mechanics. When on one trip the truck stalled en route and I silently cursed it and the mechanics, 5-year-old Eva helped us keep things in perspective when she asked excitedly, “Are we having an adventure, Papa?” After helping us set up at the market, our children would discover or invent their own adventures, playing and milling around while Cyndi and I chatted with our customers, weighed produce and made change.


Farmers’ markets have shown me that food can be a powerful and equalizing social force. Much of Jesus’ ministry involved meals, and the source and summit of Catholic faith is the Eucharist, which can draw together and transform worshipers of every stripe to share the fruits of the earth and the work of human hands. Similarly I have experienced farmers’ markets as a public arena where a wonderfully rag-tag mixture of people can encounter one another as neighbors on common ground. We have sold produce to hard-working Hispanic immigrants who labor on local poultry farms and to earnest doctoral-degreed professionals with their progressive political views and those environmentally responsible cloth shopping bags I keep forgetting to buy.

The common ground of the market depends upon a whole chorus of fidelities. To bring produce to market, my family and I have to be faithful to the possibilities and limits of our land, skill, time and stamina. We must be faithful to each other, as we work together harvesting and selling, and to our customers, providing them with a product they can trust. They show up faithfully, and when cash and cabbages change hands, money does not create separation and abstraction, as is the general rule in the larger economy. Instead, the exchange helps to stitch together the fabric of our rural community a few dollars at a time.

Lest I paint too bucolic a picture, I would be remiss not to mention how little money we and other farmers actually end up making at these small markets. With a customer base of cost-conscious rural Midwesterners and with many growers selling as a sideline business or hobby, the prices stay very low. Cyndi wisely reminds me that our farming is more important as a ministry than as a moneymaker, but I sometimes find this a cold comfort. You have to sell a lot of potatoes to cover a $500 tractor repair bill. Happily, though, I can report that more savvy and industrious farmers than I am, like Eliot Coleman in Maine or Joel Salatin in Virginia, have found ways to make a good full-time living from small-scale agriculture.

Americans have placed much naïve faith in market forces and other large-scale financial abstractions. We believed that the rising tide would lift all boats, that the invisible hand was benevolent and would by some magic inevitability make everyone’s life better. The magic of the market was largely an illusion, of course, and the Great Recession has been a startling reminder of our economy’s fallibility and failures.

Farmers’ markets, on the other hand, offer a glimpse of the gentler, more generous economy we would have if we began to insist that it generate real wealth, which is the faithful stewardship of community and creation. The real magic of the market, in my view, is that even as commerce becomes increasingly globalized, such small islands of neighborly, covenantal connection and right livelihood still find a way to exist. With care and patience, these islands can be bridged one to another into an ever-larger web of true belonging, an archipelago of economic, ecological and social health.

For in God’s economy, every last bit of creation is drawn toward a belonging in which by some great, paradoxical mystery, our neighborhood becomes both our immediate locale and the cosmos at large, where everyone and everything, at every time and in every place, is our neighbor.

Meanwhile, as we work and wait for a new economy to take root, fresh vegetables are their own reward.

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9 years ago
Mr Kramer,
I'm glad you've found such spiritual fulfillment in growing vegetables. I'm also glad that there are mega-farms all over this country and around the world. I'm glad they use pesticides, growth hormones, and that they genetically modify their crops to grow in warmer, colder, wetter, or drier climates than they normally could. I'm also glad that some farmer in Latin America grows far more banana's than he and his family, and his village, can ever eat, because they don't grow too well in the northest U.S. Same goes for oranges, pepper, curry, limes, avacados, grapes, and on and on . . . Ditto for all the various kinds of meat, poultry and fish that we have in such abundance. I love it that there are ranchers who raise more of those things than is needed by the "local community." These guys, and the crops farmers (a.k.a. "giant agri-business') are folks who make it possible to send tons of food to the millions of starving people around the world (c.f. Tsunami of 2004, Somalia 1986, 1990, right up to today, and every other place where there is draught, corrupt governments, and where the poor literally starve to death)
The farmers market nearest to me sells some locally grown foods as well as $5 a glass fresly-squeezed orange juice (from Florida, Texas, California, or Mexico), hand-made quilts, and brown eggs! And while the eggs might be brown, all the shoppers are white! An interesting phenomenon since the the area is majority non-white! I notice too that these farmers markets don't accept food stamps! Curious?
Mr. Kramer, have you checked out the life-expectancy of cultures that only consume that which can be raised, or grown locally? You'll find them in issues of National Geographic under the title "The disappearing people of _______" (fill in the blank)
Christopher Mulcahy
9 years ago
“Americans have placed much naïve faith in market forces and other large-scale financial abstractions. We believed that the rising tide would lift all boats, that the invisible hand was benevolent and would by some magic inevitability make everyone’s life better. The magic of the market was largely an illusion, of course, and the Great Recession has been a startling reminder of our economy’s fallibility and failures.”
Lovely article on the human side of farming and marketing produce.  Farmers’ markets are indeed delightful aspects of our economy, as most of us experience this time of year.  To leap to the conclusion that “naïve” faith in the market has led to the “Great Recession”, however, is quite a jump.  Is it not more likely that Americans, in their great ignorance of the theory of market capitalism, have allowed their economic tradition to be compromised by socialism?  Barney Frank and his friends, one might argue, for example, have succeeded in damaging one of the central devices of capitalism—the mortgage.   In the name of socialist do-gooderism, he and his minions, with our implied assent, redefined the mortgage into something a borrower might pay, or might not.  Millions of trusting investors were burned.  The damaged system has yet to right itself.  
Closer to home for the Kramer family,  naïve Americans have decided to subsidize various elements of the farm economy—cotton, sugar, peanuts, milk, etc.—thereby distorting prices to the benefit of some and detriment of others.  Political judgment trumps the “market”.   Other participants, like the Kramers or poor Carribbean sugar growers, are immorally prevented from participating in our markets, and sugar is artificially doubled in price in our grocery stores.
Americans, particularly Christians with a praiseworthy desire to help, seem to have forgotten the basics of the system that has historically worked the best to lift free citizens out of poverty.  Michael Novak in his classic book “The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism” is not a difficult read and should be on every Catholic reader’s bookshelf.   No one should kid himself—do-gooder socialism in every case leads ultimately to allocation of reduced production by force.
Christopher Mulcahy
9 years ago

The letters above, including my own of course, were poorly formatted and therefore difficult to read.  Please consider this a formal request to have someone familiar with word processing software and conventional formatting review the letters to the editor before they are posted online.
Thank you very much.
Chris Mulcahy


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