Giant sweet potato, puny profits, at Williston Farmers Market

According to the most recent figures available from the state’s Department of Agriculture and Consumer services, Florida has 47,500 commercial farms. It ranks second in the value of vegetable production and first in cash receipts for oranges, grapefruit, fresh snap beans, sweet corn, watermelons, fresh cucumbers, squash and sugarcane. (Williston, Florida used to be first in cucumbers.) The Sunshine State is second in the production of greenhouse and nursery products. Florida accounts for 65 percent of total U.S. citrus production.

The motto is “Fresh From Florida.” But Floridians rarely buy it fresh.

In 2004, the Williston, Florida’s  development agency pushed the City Council to approve and partially fund a farmers market. Our dream was make fresh, affordable produce available to local residents of low income Levy County, to encourage small scale farming/market gardening, and to bring people to the center of town.

We failed. The City Council was less than enthusiastic. The idea, they thought, was weird. “It’s not the way we’ve always done it.” They forgot that most Americans once shopped in farmers markets

We have short memories. They’re limited to what is familiar. Anything else is historical, exotic, foreign. And what is familiar, normal, today is defined by the global corporate economy. Winn-Dixie’s produce bins are filled with cucumbers from Mexico, not Williston, although it was once our major market crop. Our grandparents might have thought farmers markets were the “way we always did it,” but  Winn-Dixie and Bi Lo, which bought W-D this spring, operate 690 stores in eight southeastern states and ship in products from around the world. They are our normal.

The farmers market failure was way back in 2004, but if you ask a Williston City Council member today what he (yes, they are all he) thinks about solar power, the answer will still be “that’s not the way we’ve always done it.” That means Progress Energy, and a nuclear power plant in Levy County. Never mind the plant right down the beach in Crystal River has been closed since 2009 because of fissures in its containment dome. Never mind the planned site is a tourist and fishing mecca. Never mind Progress Energy expects repairs at Crystal River to exceed $2.5 billion and customers are paying $500 million a year in fuel costs. Never mind this is the Sunshine State where, once we build the panels, storage and lines, the energy is free.

Of course City Council opposition wasn’t the only reason the Farmers’ Market failed. We couldn’t find a market manager. There weren’t enough vendors to satisfy the hopes of shoppers. There wasn’t the critical mass needed to sustain the market long enough to encourage local gardeners to plant an extra row to take to market.

But the big reason it failed, most likely, was that too many of us operate with a “It’s not the way we’ve always done it” way of thinking. Not just the men on City Council. If there had been a groundswell of enthusiasm for the project, it might have survived, maybe even prospered.

If only we were free to think outside the box built by corporations around our heads….

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