Lost Appetite for Farmer’s Market

By dianaoftripoli (Flickr.com)

The dream of Zhi Zhang, a recent graduate from Xi’an Technical Collage, is to be a white collar businessman. The 24-year-old man knows it is much harder to find a job than helping his father´s business, a vendor’s stand in a farmer´s market, but selling vegetables and meat isn’t attractive at all. He wants to be someone elegant, sitting in the office room and dealing with documents and files, rather than fishes and cucumbers.

I heard his story from my mom, who is a regular customer of his father. Every morning the middle-aged man loads all the food into his pedal-operated tricycle at 4:00 a.m., drives to the market at 4:30 a.m. and begins selling food at 5:00 a.m., when his son is still sleeping in the bed. The other farmers in the market are all in their 40’s or 50’s as well.

Farmer’s market is smelly, young Chinese would say. This generation who was born after the economy reform and opening up in 1970s, isn’t anything like their parents. They would rather pay more in Wal-Mart or Carrefour than go to a farmer’s market. They like more choices. For those who live in inland cities, supermarket is the only place they can find tropical fruits or seafood or even imported food. They also like the feeling of shopping in a large supermarket, where the fluorescent light is lighting the food up and the air conditioners cooling the room down, where fruits and vegetables are arranged orderly in the shelves, while pork, steak and fish are already cut into pieces and frozen in plastic box. It is easy, clear, and convenient.

So when these young Chinese graduate from college, get a decent job and become the main customers, supermarkets find their firm foothold in China. Within the past two decades, supermarket companies have turned themselves from an alternative food supplier into a big player in food industry, penetrating not only well-developed areas such as Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, but also remote villages and inland towns. With 45,587 locations nationwide, the supermarket industry boosted its annual turnover of 710.47 billion Yuan, 12.2 percent of the total sales of retail market in China in 2008.

Supermarkets/hypermarkets in China

Yet young citizens are not the only ones that turn back on farmer’s market, local governments abandon it too. In September 2001, Beijing local government announced that the farmer’s markets would be moved out of 3rd Circle Rd, the dividing line between the downtown and the outskirt, within three years. In the same year, Fuzhou and Guangzhou local governments respectively disclosed their plans to turn local farmer’s markets into supermarkets.

I feel sad for Chinese farmer’s market, which has been serving fresh food for China over the past four decades and providing millions job opportunities for people who migrate from villages to cities. But no one can help the market before solving its stubborn problem – food safety. Intensively issued by Chinese mainstream media in recent years, vendors selling meat are notorious for smearing pork with a chemical power to keep the meat fresh, and injecting water to make the meat weigh more, while peddlers selling vegetables and fruits are marked as “pesticide infectors”. In comparison, supermarket companies always have their regular chains of purchasing the food, and pay more attention to the food safety to build their brand reputation. No wonder Chinese favors them.

But even so, the Chinese farmer’s market is not dying. The regular customers of individual vendors, like Zhi Zhang’s father, are still in a big amount. Since the total cost of running a food stand in a farmer’s market, including rent, labor, maintenance and repair, is minimal, their food prices can be very competitive. A survey of thousands of Beijing citizens conducted by Beijing Industrial and Economic Bureau shows that the lower income households under 1000 Yuan income per month, or 148 US Dollar, only purchase in farmer’s market, while the lower-middle income households with an average income of 3000 Yuan per month, or 444 US Dollar, frequently purchase food directly from farmers as well. The main format of fresh food supply in China in 1970s is becoming an alternative market for cheaper food.

Rumors are saying that the local government is going to turn the land near my community, including the farmer’s market area, into a green belt. But it doesn’t matter for Zhi Zhang, who has packed the luggage and headed for job opportunities in big cities, where are crowded by the same ambitious young Chinese. It even doesn’t bother his father. With no successor come after, the vendor is going to retire very soon.

Goodbye to the farmer’s market, and good luck for the young man.

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About Yifei Liu
I am a senior research assistant at International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). I received a master’s degree in journalism from UW-Madison with a focus on international and economic reporting in 2011 and a B.A in journalism from Renmin University of China in 2009. I am now living in Alexandria, VA.

3 Responses to Lost Appetite for Farmer’s Market

  1. Pingback: CSA: A new way to deal with food safety concerns in China? « China Business and Economy

  2. I can understand the concern for food safety in an unregulated market, but I think the trends in the USA seem to be the opposite. I feel like while most Americans shop at supermarkets, there is a whole new generation of shoppers who are looking for something more natural and traditional. Perhaps this is why we see people from neighboring cities swarming to Madison on Saturday mornings just to purchase products they could get cheaper at their local Wal-Mart. While young Chinese people are bucking the traditions of their parents, so too are young generations of American.

    • Yifei Liu says:

      Thank you for your comment, Will. It is an interesting point. I went to Michael Pollan’s speech on “In Defense of Food” last year, and I was impressed by America’s enthusiasm for nature and traditional food. It may be due to the sick of overdeveloped, processing-based mass production and consumption culture in America, I guess. I should include it into my final version article.

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