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Enhancing Adaptive Capacity in Food Systems: Learning at Farmers' Markets in Sweden

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rebecka.milestad@sol.slu.se
rebecka.milestad@sol.slu.se
rebecka.milestad@sol.slu.se

Abstract and Figures

This article examines how local food systems in the form of farmers' markets can enhance adaptive capacity and build social-ecological resilience. It does this by exploring the learning potential among farmers and customers. Learning can enable actors to adapt successfully and thus build adaptive capacity. Three forms of learning are investigated: instrumental, communicative, and emancipatory. These forms of learning constitute the foundation for lasting changes of behaviors. Local food systems are characterized by close links and opportunities for face-to-face interactions between consumers and producers of food, and are also institutions where farmers and customers can express and act upon their ethical values concerning food. However, local food systems are still a marginal phenomenon and cannot be accessed by all consumers. Interviews were held with customers and farmers, and the interactions between farmers and customers were observed at two farmers' markets in Sweden. Customers and farmers were found to learn and adapt to each other due to the opportunities offered by the farmers' markets. We found that farmers and customers learned in the instrumental and communicative domains, but could not confirm emancipatory learning. We concluded that the feedback between customers and farmers offers the potential for learning, which in turn contributes to adaptive capacity. This can be a driving force for building resilience in the food system.
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Copyright © 2010 by the author(s). Published here under license by the Resilience Alliance.
Milestad, R., L. Westberg, U. Geber, and J. Björklund. 2010. Enhancing adaptive capacity in food systems:
learning at farmers' markets in Sweden. Ecology and Society 15(3): 29. [online] URL: http://www.
ecologyandsociety.org/vol15/iss3/art29/
Research
Enhancing Adaptive Capacity in Food Systems: Learning at Farmers'
Markets in Sweden
Rebecka Milestad 1,2, Lotten Westberg 1, Ulrika Geber 3, and Johanna Björklund 4
ABSTRACT. This article examines how local food systems in the form of farmers' markets can enhance
adaptive capacity and build social-ecological resilience. It does this by exploring the learning potential
among farmers and customers. Learning can enable actors to adapt successfully and thus build adaptive
capacity. Three forms of learning are investigated: instrumental, communicative, and emancipatory. These
forms of learning constitute the foundation for lasting changes of behaviors. Local food systems are
characterized by close links and opportunities for face-to-face interactions between consumers and
producers of food, and are also institutions where farmers and customers can express and act upon their
ethical values concerning food. However, local food systems are still a marginal phenomenon and cannot
be accessed by all consumers. Interviews were held with customers and farmers, and the interactions
between farmers and customers were observed at two farmers' markets in Sweden. Customers and farmers
were found to learn and adapt to each other due to the opportunities offered by the farmers' markets. We
found that farmers and customers learned in the instrumental and communicative domains, but could not
confirm emancipatory learning. We concluded that the feedback between customers and farmers offers the
potential for learning, which in turn contributes to adaptive capacity. This can be a driving force for building
resilience in the food system.
Key Words: adaptive capacity; learning; local food systems; farmers' markets; short food chains; social-
ecological resilience
INTRODUCTION
There is increasing experience of the physical and
psychological displacement of both food production
from processing and production from consumption
(Sundkvist et al. 2005). The geographical and
cognitive distance between food producers and
consumers has increased in the developed world
since the 20th century because fewer people are
directly involved in producing food, production
chains are more complex, and fewer people know
how to grow their own food or how food is produced
(Hendrickson and Heffernan 2002, Eden et al.
2008). These changes have been accompanied by
loss of agricultural resilience and diversity,
degradation of the environment, dislocation of
community, and loss of identity and place (Pretty
1998, Feagan 2007).
The concept of local food systems attempts to link
food and place for consumers and producers
(Connell et al. 2008). Farmers' markets are an
expression of local food systems, and as such they
are sites for commercial exchanges and negotiated
meaning in the local food landscape (Smithers et al.
2008). Localness, naturalness, personal trust, a
sense of community, reciprocity, and social
connection are key modes associated with assessing
the worth of farmers' markets (Hinrichs 2000,
Holloway and Kneafsey 2000).
The opportunity for direct personal communication
among participants in local food systems is
important for the development of such systems
(Hinrichs 2000, Jarosz 2000), which can be
perceived as potential learning situations in which
the participants exchange experiences and
information about the activities that make up the
food system. Building the capacity of individuals,
organizations, and societies to learn through change
is fundamental in natural resource management,
including farming and the food system (cf. Armitage
1Department of Urban and Rural Studies, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, 2Division of Environmental Strategies Research, Royal Institute of
Technology, 3County Administrative Board of Stockholm, 4Centre for Sustainable Agriculture, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences
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et al. 2008, Darnhofer et al. 2010). Learning is an
important precondition for building resilience
(Berkes et al. 2003, Armitage et al. 2008) by
enhancing the adaptability of the actors involved
(Walker et al. 2004). This is because learning can
enable actors to respond accurately to social-
ecological feedback (Carpenter et al. 2001, Folke et
al. 2003, Armitage et al. 2008). Although learning
is an important concept in the literature on resilience
and local food systems, few authors have described
the actual learning that takes place and what it
implies for sustainable development (cf. Hinrichs
et al. 2004, Armitage et al. 2008, Svenfelt and
Carlsson-Kanyama 2010). Svenfelt and Carlsson-
Kanyama (2010) call for research on the potential
for bringing food production systems closer to urban
consumers, thus establishing a link between food
consumption and the ecology of food production.
Knowledge and learning can be this link. This paper
contributes to the understanding of learning by
exploring and defining the learning potential of
farmers' markets in more detail.
The overall question that guided our research was
whether local food systems provide learning
situations, and if so, what the actors learn. If they
learn about the food system, this can strengthen their
adaptive capacity, in turn supporting resilience and
more sustainable development of the food system.
We defined learning as "…the process of using a
prior interpretation to construe a new or a revised
interpretation of the meaning of one's experience in
order to guide further action" (Mezirow 1991:12).
In this definition, action is not only seen as visible
behavior, but includes making a decision, solving a
problem, modifying an attitude, etc. (Mezirow
1991). Learning is explored here through examining
the quality of the face-to-face interactions taking
place between actors in local food systems. In line
with the definition, if the actors taking part in
farmers' markets are able to learn, they may revise
prior interpretations (or make new ones) on, for
example, their roles or the meaning of the food
system as a whole, and use them to modify their
attitudes, remake decisions, and/or adapt their
behavior when dealing with issues relating to the
food system.
Resilience, adaptive capacity, and learning
Resilience and adaptive capacity appear to be useful
concepts when analyzing food systems. A food
system is complex and dynamic, and it exhibits
interdependence between humans and ecosystems
(Darnhofer et al. 2010). Resilience is the capacity
of a system to absorb disturbance: to undergo
change and still retain essentially the same function
and structure (Carpenter et al. 2001). Adaptive
capacity is the ability of actors to cope with change
and dynamics (Gunderson and Holling 2002). Partly
depending on the adaptive capacity of the actors in
the system (farmers, processors, retailers,
consumers), resilience can be built or eroded. Thus,
a high adaptive capacity of food system actors is a
prerequisite for their resilience-building capacity
(Walker et al. 2004, Fazey et al. 2007), which is
vital in the current context of climate change,
changes in politics, and market fluctuations. A
social-ecological system, such as a food system,
with low adaptive capacity is more vulnerable to
shocks, disturbances, and sudden changes (Adger
2006). Learning is a significant factor when building
adaptive capacity and social-ecological resilience
(Berkes and Folke 1998, Berkes et al. 2003,
Gunderson et al. 2006, Fazey et al. 2007). Thus, if
actors learn, there is a high probability that they will
increase their adaptive capacity. The social context
of a farmers' market is a mediating institution that
can provide an arena for learning (Hinrichs et al.
2004). In other words, the feedback possible in face-
to-face interactions at farmers' markets can enable
learning, which may enhance the adaptive capacity
of the participants and in turn build social-
ecological resilience into the food system. In
addition, enhancing adaptive capacity for social-
ecological resilience can involve bridging between
different scales of management (Olsson et al. 2007),
enhancing diversity (cf. Elmqvist et al. 2003), and
building social networks and trust (Walker et al.
2006).
Face-to-face interactions between producers and
consumers are possible at the scale of local food
systems and are an opportunity for learning. When
farmers and customers meet face-to-face, they have
the possibility to learn from and about each other,
which in turn can improve their adaptive capacity.
Hinrichs et al. (2004) investigated social learning
in relation to innovations at farmers' markets and
found that attending and selling at the farmers'
market more often increased the opportunities for
learning. Furthermore, farmers' markets enabled
producers and consumers to take back some
responsibility for evaluating the quality of the
produce traded (Kirwan 2006). Interactions
between producers and consumers also made the
environmental and ethical performance of
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businesses more visible and thereby helped to
improve both (Hinrichs et al. 2004). For example,
farmers have been found to indicate a willingness
to reduce chemical inputs to meet consumer
demands (Hunt 2007). The farms supplying the
farmers' markets investigated in this study have high
on-farm biodiversity as a result of selling locally
(Björklund et al. 2009).
Local food systems
Farmers' markets are part of the movement to restore
local food systems. Local food networks are defined
by shorter distances between producers and
consumers; relatively small farm size and organic
or low external input production methods; the
existence of food purchasing venues such as
farmers' markets; and a commitment to sustainable
food production, distribution, and consumption
(Jarosz 2008). The notion of distance is particularly
important to local food systems (Allen et al. 2003,
Sundkvist et al. 2005). Greater distance means that
more resources are required to produce a calorie of
food; that there is no direct relationship between
producer and consumer; and that the responsibility
for production is separated from consumption
(Connell et al. 2008). It has been argued that local
food systems have the capacity to re-establish
positive relationships between producers and
consumers and to generate social, economic, and
environmental benefits (cf. Smithers et al. 2008).
For farmers, they provide scope for improved
economic viability and the ability to contribute more
directly to the local community (Marsden et al.
2000). For customers, they provide scope for
increasing their knowledge about the origins of food
and access to fresher food (Sage 2003, Lamine
2005). The economic benefits lie in the potential to
retain a greater proportion of the money spent on
food in the local economy, and the environmental
advantages are associated with less ecologically
depleting farming systems (Smithers et al. 2008).
Local food system advocates argue that eliminating
market intermediaries improves the outcome for
small-scale farmers and low-income consumers
compared with the conventional food market
(Guthman et al. 2006). Thus, many scholars have
embraced local agro-food initiatives as a solution to
the problems of global industrial agriculture (cf.
DuPuis and Goodman 2005), presenting them as an
alternative to the mainstream food system and an
alternative vision of social-ecological relations
embedded in food (DeLind 2002, Allen et al. 2003).
The change of scale is decisive. Because things are
perceived as not going well on a large scale, a change
of scale may be required (Lamine 2005).
However, it is important not to conflate the scale of
the food system with any specific characteristics of
that food system (Hinrichs 2003, Born and Purcell
2006). The argument in favor of increasingly local
food chains assumes and reinforces an association
between localness, taste, naturalness, safety,
nutritional value, environmental quality, and the
local economy that may not exist (Edwards-Jones
et al. 2008). Having local food systems is not an end
in itself, but rather a means to an end, such as social-
ecological resilience or social justice (cf. Born and
Purcell 2006). Allen (2004) points out that working
at the local level is important, but insufficient to
develop environmentally sound and socially just
agro-food systems. In order to pursue collective
goals – environmental sustainability and social
justice – farmers and consumers must actively
weave together individual economic and collective
political goals (Alkon 2008). Without a program to
promote the availability and knowledge of healthy
food for the general public, there is a good chance
that food quality will be stratified, with the relatively
well-off having the best access and the rest of society
being left with food created primarily for mass
production and easy distribution, product quality
being a secondary concern (Guthman 2008, Macias
2008).
Farmers and consumers at farmers' markets
Research on farmers who sell at farmers' markets
has revealed that they are attracted to the economic
and social benefits involved. Socializing with other
farmers and customers is also valuable to the
farmers, as is the positive feedback given by
customers at the market (Griffin and Frongillo
2003). Producers value the social interaction at
farmers' markets for its own sake (Kirwan 2006). In
a review of research on farmers' markets in the
United States, Brown (2002) concluded that farmers
use farmers' markets because they feel that this is
the best market channel available to them, with the
farms concerned more likely to be small in scale.
The reasons why customers shop at farmers' markets
can be summarized as a combination of high-
quality, fresh, and locally produced products and a
sociable and interactive atmosphere where the
consumer knows the producer (Brown 2002,
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Kirwan 2006, Moore 2006, Connell et al. 2008). At
the market, customers are more likely to engage in
social encounters than supermarket customers
(LaTrobe 2001). The opportunities at farmers'
markets to build a relationship with producers
enables customers to feel more confident in the
quality of products – mainly by being able to assess
the integrity of the producers themselves and
thereby their trustworthiness (Kirwan 2006). A
common stereotype is that the farmers' market
customer is more inquisitive about the manner in
which food is produced (Smithers et al. 2008).
However, Åsebø et al. (2007) found that producers
at Norwegian farmers' markets felt it was important
to communicate how and where food was produced,
whereas customers were less concerned about this
aspect.
Consumers normally have a multidimensional
concept of quality, which goes beyond chemical and
physical variables and may include a wide range of
social factors relating to the traditions and
experiences of people in the food chain (Parrott et
al. 2002, as cited in Edwards-Jones et al. 2008).
People who shop more often at farmers' markets can
have conceptions of "good food" that are different
from those of people who shop for food elsewhere
(Connell et al. 2008). Furthermore, people who shop
at farmers' markets more often take more factors
into account when purchasing food. Thus, a farmers'
market can be seen not only as a place to buy "good
food," but also as a medium for expressing values
associated with food choices (Connell et al., 2008).
The ability to afford the produce is a determining
factor for customer visits to a farmers' market
(Guthman et al. 2006). Many farmers' markets are
located in high-end areas because the farmers can
make more money there (cf. Guthman 2008).
Indeed, customers at farmers' markets have a higher
level of education and a higher income than the
average citizen (Hunt 2007). The presence of people
with "alternative" lifestyles might also be associated
with a concentration of local food businesses (Ilbery
et al. 2006). As we shall see, the farmers' markets
described in this study were no different.
METHODOLOGY
The field study was undertaken during 2005 and
2006 at two farmers' markets in Sweden. The results
are based on interviews with five farmers (or
farming couples) and nine customers, and on
observations of interactions between farmers and
customers during market days.
Sampling
The two markets studied were the Farmers' Own
Market™ in Stockholm and Örebro. The Farmers'
Own Market is an economic association for farmers
selling their own products at markets in 16 towns
(at present) in Sweden. Only products that farmers
have grown or reared themselves on farms within a
250-km radius of the market can be sold. The
Stockholm farmers' market is located in an
"alternative" area (cf. Ilbery et al. 2006), whereas
the Örebro market is located in a mixed area. Neither
of the markets is located so as to attract the attention
of the minority/low-income populations of the
cities, and there is no outspoken intention to attract
this group of consumers.
Sample farms supplying these markets were
selected by convenience (Bryman 2004) through
contact with advisors working with local
distribution networks. We carried out in-depth
studies of five farms (Table 1): two specialize in
horticulture (F1 and F2); two mainly rear animals
in the form of sheep (F3) or beef cattle (F4); and
one mainly produces cereals and sells mill products,
but also has beef cattle (F5). The farmers sell at the
Farmers' Own Market in Stockholm, Örebro, or
both. In addition, the farmers sell at the farm gate,
to restaurants, and to grocery stores. Farms F3 and
F5 also sell meat and cereals through mainstream
channels. The main factors characterizing the farms
in the study, in comparison with the average
Swedish farm, were that they are organic and work-
intensive, have a low monetary turnover, and
generally use few purchased inputs. The estimated
income for the farms was around 20,000 USD or
lower per person per year. This is quite low,
especially considering that this was the sole income
for all farms except two (Table 1).
Customers were randomly approached at the two
markets on different occasions as they were
purchasing goods from one of the farmers in the
study. Most were middle-aged, female, and frequent
visitors to the market (Table 2). The customers
generally had higher or professional education, but
only one (C7) could be described as a typical high-
income consumer (although consumers were not
questioned directly about their income). Despite
this, weekly spending at the market was a couple of
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Table 1. Descriptions of the farms in the study.
F1 F2 F3 F4 F5
County Örebro Stockholm Örebro Örebro Örebro
Main product Vegetables,
potatoes Vegetables Lamb, sausages Beef Cereals, flour, hard
bread, beef
Production system Organic Organic Organic Organic Organic
Arable land 24 ha 3.5 ha 100 ha 47 ha 130 ha
Animals Leased grazing for
beef cattle 550 ewes 35 cows 11 beef cows, 20
ewes
Other activities Trainees Trainees Cattle dogs, dog
training courses Full-time teacher Forest, small
conference facility,
hydro-electric plant
Marketing of
products Farmers' market,
farm gate, local
grocery stores,
restaurants
Farmers' market,
farmer
cooperation, farm
gate, box scheme
Farmers' market,
local stores,
national butcheries
Farmers' market,
local grocery
stores, Internet
Farmers' market,
local and distant
grocery stores, mill
Proportion of
produce sold
locally measured
by income
100% 100% 40% 100% 90%
hundred SEK (1 USD = 7.25 SEK) in all recorded
cases (Table 2). The predominance of customers
from the Örebro market is due to three interviews
with Stockholm customers being lost due to
technical problems.
Interviews and observations
Using a thematic interview guide, semi-structured
interviews (Bryman 2004) were carried out with
each farmer or farming couple on two occasions
over two years. The interviews focused on how
products were processed and sold, the reason for
selling locally, and farmers' perceptions of their
interactions with customers. In addition, agronomic
and economic data from 2004 and 2005 were
collected.
On five occasions in 2005 (three in Stockholm and
two in Örebro) and three occasions in 2006 (one in
Stockholm and two in Örebro), dialogues between
the farmers and their customers were observed
during market days (cf. Bryman 2004). Notes were
made of conversations and other kinds of
interactions and activities that took place. In total,
153 observations were recorded.
The nine sample customers were interviewed by
telephone using a structured interview guide aimed
at obtaining information about their consumption
patterns, values, and preferences regarding food and
their perception of the opportunities to meet and
converse with food producers.
The interviews with farmers and customers were
recorded, transcribed, and analyzed thematically
through iterative reading of the interview material,
categorization of the material by themes, and
quantification of statements (Miles and Huberman
1994, Kvale 1996). The documented observations
from market occasions were used for method
triangulation (Kvale 1996), enabling a critical
perspective of descriptions given by farmers and
customers.
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Table 2. Descriptions of the customers interviewed in the study.
Consumer Age Gender City Profession No. of people
in household Frequency at
farmers'
market
Weekly
spending at the
market (SEK)
C1 50s Female Örebro Dental nurse 2 Several times nd
C2 44 Male Örebro nd 4 Several times nd
C3 63 Female Örebro Social worker 1 Almost every
week 200-300
C4 55 Male Stockholm Carpenter 2 Every week 500-600
C5 60 Female Stockholm Art director 2 Several times 300-400
C6 29 Female Örebro Teacher 2 Almost every
week nd
C7 55 Female Örebro Hospital director 4 Every week 400-500
C8 56 Female Örebro University
administrator 1 Almost every
week nd
C9 50s Male Örebro Antique restorer 2 Almost every
week 300-500
In relation to the 11 weeks it is open during harvest season.
Identification of learning possibilities
In order to explore the question of whether face-to-
face communication in local food systems provides
opportunities for learning and thereby strengthens
the adaptive capacity of the actors involved, we first
needed to clarify the concepts of "communication"
and "learning." Human communication can be seen
as symbolic action through which our beliefs,
attitudes, and behaviors are mediated (Burke 1966).
Based on an understanding of communication as
symbolic action, Mezirow (1991) developed a
theory of transformative learning that describes
three domains in which learning can take place:
instrumental learning, communicative learning, and
emancipatory learning. Instrumental learning
involves learning for control and manipulation of
the environment, including other people. Within the
context of the farmers' market, one result of
instrumental learning could be a farmer learning
which crops to grow or a customer learning which
of the market stalls sells a certain tomato variety.
Reaching an understanding is the inherent purpose
of human communication. Being able to take part
in communication requires a universal core of basic
attitudes that we share with those with whom we are
communicating, a tacit consensus about norms and
values, and fundamental rules that we must master
in order to understand what people mean and to
make ourselves understood. Learning within the
communicative domain means understanding more
about the perspectives and interests of others, what
others mean, and how to communicate one's own
meaning, to make sense of and relate to the
particular context within which the communication
takes place. Within the context of the farmers'
market, communicative learning could occur when
food actors develop knowledge about other actors'
values and priorities, not in order to control them,
but for the purpose of understanding and relating to
each other and the context.
Emancipatory learning is learning about one's self,
about developing the ability to consciously reflect
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upon one's competences, skills, and inabilities. The
emancipation within this learning domain refers to
emancipation from, for example, linguistic,
epistemic, institutional, or environmental forces
that we take for granted (Mezirow 1991). Within
the context of the farmers' market, this could occur
when actors are inspired to challenge their existing
self-perceptions by trying to deal with difficulties
or solve problems that they believed to be beyond
their control. Emancipatory learning is a function
of communicative learning, that is, how we are
interpreted by others, but we also gain knowledge
about ourselves through instrumental learning, by
getting feedback on our skills and abilities to
accomplish and perform.
Although the three learning dimensions are
analytically distinguishable, in practice they are
interrelated and interdependent. An act of speech
may be instrumental, but it is always communicative
as well (Forester 1993). When a person speaks,
something more than the content of the words is
always conveyed. The words spoken may confirm,
encourage, promise, criticize, wonder, etc.,
conveying an intention or a meaning to those
listening. Thus, communication is never simply a
transmission of factual matters. The factual content
in the act of speech is linked to norms or values
interpreted by those listening and affected by the
context within which the conversation takes place.
In this analysis, we looked for qualitative aspects of
the observed communications that reflected the
different learning domains, in order to determine
and discuss whether farmers and customers used
and benefited from the learning opportunities at the
markets. When learning opportunities were found,
we linked this to the potential for building the
adaptive capacity of the farmers and customers in
the study. However, we did not assess the actual
actions and behaviors of farmers and customers
here. In the case of the farmers, this has been done
elsewhere (Björklund et al. 2009). Our contribution
here involves detailing how learning (as a
mechanism for resilience) can be analyzed in a
resilience framework, rather than analyzing the
actual outcomes for resilience as such.
RESULTS AND ANALYSIS
Instrumental learning at the farmers' markets
When customers and farmers in the study were
asked what they talked about with each other during
market occasions (Table 3) and what they thought
they learned from each other, they referred to
conversations in which they gained knowledge
about factual matters that they regarded as useful
(Table 4). This is learning within the instrumental
domain, that is, learning for control and
manipulation of the environment, including other
people (Mezirow 1991).
The customers mainly mentioned that they took the
opportunity to ask farmers about food items they
were not familiar with; how to use and store the food
they bought at the market; and about the taste,
availability, and quality of different products (Table
4). Consequently, they could be seen as learning
about new and for them unusual varieties, about
when different vegetables were in season, how
products tasted, and how to use different products.
Some customers stated that they had learned how
vegetables should look when they were really fresh.
After attending the farmers' market and interacting
with farmers and other customers, they had learned
to be more exacting about food and to demand
higher quality. Some customers also believed that
visiting the farmers' market made them more
interested in food and cooking in general. As one
customer (C8) said:
[I] think it's terribly sad having only these
big [supermarkets]. I'd rather have this
contact when I shop […] up there [at the
market]. One can talk to them and hear
what this is and where it comes from and
what it looks like and what I can do with it,
because there's a lot you don't recognize. I
think that's fun, especially these roots and
tubers, I think that can be a bit tricky.
According to the farmers surveyed, important
conversations and learning were connected to
information regarding customers' wishes, sense of
taste, knowledge, and ability to use the products
offered by the farmers (Table 4). This kind of
information was useful for farmers because it
increased their ability to judge and influence aspects
connected to farming and selling at the market.
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Table 3. Things farmers and customers talked about at the farmers' market.
Subject Farmers stating this
(n = 5) Consumers stating this
(n = 9) Number of observations
(n = 153)
How to use the products (recipes,
storage, try new) F1, F2, F3 C1, C3, C8, C9 32
About the products (availability,
varieties, quality, taste) F1, F2, F3, F4 C3, C4, C6, C7 50
Production methods of the farm F1, F2, F3, F4, F5 C6 23
Give feedback, confirm relation F1, F2, F3, F4, F5 C3, C5 45
Farm location F3, F5 5
Market practicalities F3 17
Other (skin problems, how consumers
grow vegetables, not much talk at all) F1, F5 C1, C2, C9
Some observations were attributed to more than one subject.
Generally, the farmers did not feel that most
customers were very eager to ask profound
questions. However, one farmer (F2) interpreted
this not as disinterest, but as approval: If they
shopped, they liked the produce and that was all that
mattered. At the same time, all farmers stated that
they talked about production methods occasionally
with customers at the market (Table 3). This
included conversations about animal breeding,
transport, slaughter, pests in vegetables, and why
certain varieties of potatoes were not available as
organic produce. In many cases, the farmers offered
information about the production methods to
customers unasked. The farmers also volunteered
information about crops and varieties they wanted
the customers to try, and some tried to attract
customers by talking about the high quality of their
produce. One vegetable grower (F1) explained:
[I can teach them] all they can do with it
[the produce] and that there are new things.
There are people that don't know how to
deal with things, and things they've seen in
a shop but they don't dare to buy. Because
they don't know what to do with it. Me, they
dare ask. And then I have to have a good
answer as well.
Our market day observations supported the
statements of the interviewees (Tables 5 and 6). The
customers learned about crops, varieties, tastes,
availability, and how to store and prepare products
from the market. In cases where the interaction
between customers and farmers was not restricted
to a purely commercial transaction, the conversation
often started with farmers recommending
something or customers pointing at products with
questions about their names or how they tasted, or
asking about how products they had bought should
be stored or prepared. Conversations of this kind
gave farmers the opportunity to learn about what
customers wanted, liked and did not like, what they
knew, and how they perceived the information
offered by the farmers.
The observations showed that the opportunities for
learning within the instrumental domain varied from
farmer to farmer (Table 6). Some of the farmers tried
to attract customers to their stalls by engaging in
conversations with them and offering them samples
of their products. For example, the sheep farmers
(F3) offered mutton stew and distributed recipes.
The cereal farmer (F5) offered samples of hard
bread and tried to talk customers into slowing down
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Table 4. Things farmers and customers said they learned at the farmers' market.
Farmers say they learn about Farmers stating
this (n = 5) Consumers say they learn about Consumers stating this
(n = 9)
What consumers want
and how they use the
products (packaging,
meat cuts, varieties)
F1, F2,
F3, F4,
F5
How vegetables look when they are
fresh
Be pickier about food, demand higher
quality
Take more interest in food and cooking
C1, C3, C4, C8
What consumers think and care about.
What they like and dislike regarding
taste and quality
F1, F2,
F4, F5 New, different, unusual (varieties of)
vegetables. How to use more
vegetables in cooking.
C1, C4, C6, C8
That most consumers have little
knowledge about and do not care about
production methods
F1, F2,
F5 How animals are raised and
slaughtered C7
That consumers like to be recognized
by farmers F1 Trust the farmer C8
Where the farm is situated, what it
offers (activities, products) C3, C4, C5
at his stall. Through this strategy, conversations
emerged about the products, cooking, and
production methods and thus enabled learning
within the instrumental domain. The beef producer
(F4) did not let any customers slip away without
talking about his production:
C: How old was this one? / F4: The bull? /
C: Yes. / F4: About two years. / C: Is that
good? / F4: Yes, that's about the age they
should be. You know, since it's organic, it
takes a bit longer until they're ready. They
only eat grass. [The customer selects a
package.]
The meat and cereal stalls were not as busy as the
vegetable stalls, and thus the farmers had more
opportunities to spend time talking with customers.
The vegetable farmers had one or two helpers who
sold and displayed produce. However, despite stress
and waiting customers, F1 took time to talk to his
customers:
C: You have so many different varieties of
potatoes; one doesn't know which to chose. /
F1: We have many varieties of many things
here. / C: But King Edward isn't available?
/ F1: No, that one needs too much poison. /
C: It doesn't yield so much either, does it?
/ F1: We only grow organic here.
At the stall of the second vegetable farmer (F2),
customers were more numerous, lines were longer,
and the speed of transactions was faster. This farmer
used the helpers for selling and spent most of his
time taking out more produce. Thus, he was less
confronted with customers, and the helpers did not
take the initiative for conversations with customers.
The content (i.e., the information about factual
matters) of the communications that took place at
the farmers' markets offered opportunities for
customers and farmers to learn within the
instrumental domain. Customers had the possibility
to learn about, for example, what to ask for; when,
why, and from whom; and how to use new produce
offered by the local farmers. Farmers had the
possibilities to learn what their customers knew
about local food production, what they wanted, and
how to meet their wishes and demands. Thus,
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Table 5. Observed conversations at the farmers' stalls at the market.
Farmer Number of
documented
conversations
How to use
products About the
products Production
methods of the
farm
Give
feedback,
confirm
relation
Farm
location Market
practicalities
F1 55 8 19 14 16 0 6
F2 19 2 12 2 4 0 0
F3 28 12 4 2 8 2 4
F4 29 6 9 3 11 1 4
F5 22 4 6 2 6 2 3
Total 153 32 50 23 45 5 17
customers and farmers could adapt to each other
through the feedback they gave each other. This
adaptive capacity was expressed, for example,
through customers claiming that they ate more
vegetables or had become more quality conscious.
Adaptive farmers secured their market position by
offering the diversity of produce demanded by
customers or by offering information to customers.
Communicative learning at the farmers'
markets
Although the results of communicative learning as
defined above can be used in an instrumental way
(for instance, by trying to influence other actors),
the purpose of communicative learning is not in
itself instrumental, it is to improve communication
and refers to human beings as social, situational,
and relational.
At the same time, learning within the
communicative domain is tightly linked to, and
supportive of, learning within the instrumental
domain and vice versa. An utterance is always
communicative because it shapes a meaning about
what is said for the one who is listening. Thus, the
more a customer knows about the perspective of a
farmer, the more meaningful and relevant the
information about factual matters that the farmer
may give to the customer. This, of course, also holds
for a farmer listening to a customer.
A common kind of conversation observed on market
occasions between farmers and customers was of
the kind: "Some carrots, please" or: "Anything else?
Thirty crowns[1], please" (Table 5). Even though
they may seem very simple, these exchanges can be
regarded as a basis for communicative learning,
since a prerequisite for learning within this domain
is opportunities to meet face-to-face and
communicate. This is why every interaction at the
market has to be considered a potential
communicative learning opportunity (Table 6).
However, the interactions between customers and
producers at the farmers' market did not take place
in a social vacuum. Instead, the farmers' market can
be seen as a place where both sets of actors created
and recreated norms and values related to food
production and consumption.
Farmers and customers shared values on a number
of issues. In the interviews, customers declared that
they appreciated the availability of high-quality,
environmentally friendly, and ethical products, as
well as the possibility to support local producers
(Table 7). Farmers emphasized the appreciation and
feedback they got from their customers and were
proud of being able to offer the products the
customers wanted. In addition, two farmers valued
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Table 6. Observed learning potential at the farmers' market.
Farmer Observations
(minutes/number
of occasions)
Number of
documented
observations
Estimated
portion of
conversations
containing more
than transactions
(%)
Number of
documented
observations
with potential
for instrumental
learning
Potential for
instrumental
learning from
estimated total
(%)
Potential for
communicative and
emancipatory
learning (%)
F1 135/3 55 60-80 39 50 100
F2 95/4 19 10-30 15 16 100
F3 80/2 28 80-100 20 65 100
F4 135/2 28 90-100 18 61 100
F5 130/2 22 90-100 16 70 100
Estimations based on observations of the numbers of transactions that contained conversation (exact
number not available because the markets were very busy).
their ability to track their products from farm to
consumer, which they regarded as satisfying and as
giving meaning to work on the farm (Table 7).
Unintentionally, through every single transaction,
farmers and customers learned about norms and
values related to the market. They learned, for
instance, what was regarded as "good food" (locally
produced, organic, fresh, etc.), "good customers"
(customers who care about quality, support local
organic farmers, etc.), and "good farmers" (farmers
who provide local and fresh food to their customers).
They also learned how to act and communicate in
order to fulfill the expectations of what was "good"
in this context.
Building trust and establishing relations with other
actors is important for learning within the
communicative domain (Mezirow 1991). Though
few of the interviewees included these aspects in
their explanations about what they learned by
attending the farmers' market, they all mentioned
the opportunities for face-to-face interaction – the
fundamental way of establishing relations, building
trust, and thus communicating in a meaningful
way – as an important motive for attending the
market (Table 7). Aside from being able to get a
higher price per kilogram produce at the market
compared with other market channels, all farmers
emphasized the possibility to meet customers face-
to-face as a crucial reason for selling at a farmers'
market (Table 7). One farmer (F2) described his
feeling of contact with customers in this way:
The added value or what you want to call
it, it is that it is so tangible … I almost know
who will eat what I grow. It is a strong force
in this. Even if all [consumers] do not say
anything, they do shop, and if they shop they
like it.
Customers reported that meeting the producers not
only enhanced their shopping experience but also
increased their trust in the farmers and thus in the
produce sold at the market. One customer (C3) had
this to say:
The advantage is that I have the person that
cultivated, that person is proud of his
products, wants to sell the best and that feels
good … I think it is satisfying to know who
has produced and I think up there [at the
market] standing eye to eye with the person
who did it and that feels good.
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Table 7. Reasons why farmers and customers attended the farmers' market.
Reasons for selling at the market Farmers stating this
(n = 5) Reasons for shopping at the
market Consumers stating this
(n = 9)
Meeting consumers face-to-face F1, F2, F3, F4, F5 Meet producers face-to-face C1, C3, C6, C7, C8, C9
Social event F5 Nice atmosphere, fun C1, C3, C5, C6, C7
Offer fresh produce of high quality F1, F2, F4 Fresh, high-quality, tasty,
safe, genuine products C2, C3, C4, C5, C6, C7, C8,
C9
Get feedback from consumers F1, F2, F3, F4, F5 Trust farmers more than
supermarkets C3, C8
Better price per kilogram produce F1, F2, F3 Want to support local/
small-scale producers C3, C5, C6, C7, C8, C9
Better control of the whole
production chain F2, F3 Want local/Swedish
produce C3, C5, C6, C7, C9
Contribute to sustainable
consumption F4 For the environment/animal
welfare C2, C5, C6, C7, C8
The face-to-face interaction that took place at the
farmers' market improved the opportunities for
learning to build trust and develop tight
relationships among farmers and customers. This is
important because it can increase the actors' interest
in each other and improve the possibilities to
understand more about the perspectives, norms, and
values of each other and thus communicate in a
relevant and meaningful way. Trust is also
important because it supports the opportunities for
consumers and producers to manifest and strengthen
shared norms and values.
Emancipatory learning at the farmers' markets
It was difficult to find indications of emancipatory
learning compared with instrumental and
communicative learning in the empirical data in the
study. However, because emancipatory learning is
a function of both communicative and instrumental
learning, there were opportunities in all interactions
for customers and farmers attending the market to
learn about themselves and their respective roles
(Table 6). These opportunities could have
strengthened and developed their roles and their
identities as actors in this alternative food market,
which can be seen as opportunities of learning about
themselves. This conversation between two
customers was observed on one of the market
occasions:
Woman 1: These look nice. Did you try this
one [a tomato variety]? / Woman 2: Yes, I
bought it last week, it has a thinner skin,
more sour. / Woman 1: A bit like this one
[showing another variety]? / Woman 2: Yes,
it is apparantly an older variety. / Woman
1: You mean it was grown earlier? / Woman
2: Yes, these older tomatoes have thinner
skin these are different varieties, these
are much tastier.
However, although customers and farmers have the
potential to develop their expertise as local food
actors at the farmers' markets, there is no evidence
that this leads to self-reflection or develops their
understanding of themselves. For such a claim,
longer and more in-depth studies would be
necessary.
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DISCUSSION
By attending the farmers' markets, the customers in
this study increased their opportunities for learning
(cf. Hinrichs et al. 2004). As in other studies, the
farmers in our study used environmentally friendly
production methods, most farms were small in size,
the farmers liked to socialize and get feedback from
customers, and they found the market to be an
appropriate market channel for them (cf. Marsden
et al. 2000, Brown 2002, Griffin and Frongillo 2003,
Kirwan 2006, Smithers et al. 2008). As reported
elsewhere, the customers in this study were looking
for fresh, high-quality, local food; they liked the
atmosphere at the market; and they were able to gain
additional knowledge about food production (cf.
Brown 2002, Sage 2003, Lamine 2005, Kirwan
2006, Moore 2006, Connell et al. 2008). Although
some customers in the study found it valuable to be
able to ask questions about products and production
methods, the farmers did not perceive that
customers asked questions frequently. This was
confirmed by our observations and another study
(Åsebø et al. 2007), in which farmers found it
important to volunteer information about varieties
and production methods, whereas customers
considered this less important. The customers in this
study had an image of themselves being quality-
conscious and caring for the environment, animals,
and local farmers. Their values for food seem to
correspond to what Connell et al. (2008) called
"good food." In addition, the market was a way to
obtain "good food" and to express values about food.
Like many customers in other studies of farmers'
markets, those in this study had some kind of higher
or professional education (cf. Hunt 2007).
Furthermore, the two markets in this study did not
specifically aim to attract low-income or minority
consumers. On the contrary, the Stockholm market
was situated in an "alternative" area with a high
density of high-income and quality-conscious
consumers. The Örebro market was situated in a
mixed area, but still in the city, whereas low-income
people in Sweden typically live in the suburbs.
Although Sweden is a less stratified society than,
for example, the United Kingdom or the United
States, this still raises questions of access to local
food (cf. Guthman 2008, Macias 2008).
This study explored learning as the process of using
prior interpretation to construe a new or revised
interpretation of the meaning of one's experience in
order to guide further action (Mezirow 1991).
Through observations at the market and through
interviews with farmers and customers, we were
able to examine and describe instrumental and
communicative learning. Information on factual
matters exchanged during face-to-face interactions –
such as information about prices, supply, and
demand of different produce, and production and
consumption conditions for farmers and customers –
were attributed to the instrumental learning domain.
Learning within the communicative domain is
enabled by the norms, values, and interests
expressed by those involved in the interaction.
Farmers and customers in this study were able to
develop trust in each other and acknowledge that
they shared norms and values with other actors at
the market. This could increase their interest in
learning (cf. Kegan 2000). It seems that local food
networks have the potential to promote and develop
informed consumers by nurturing the ethics of
ecological citizenship and providing a means for
their expression (Seyfang 2006). Overall, we found
evidence of what a consumer study by Svenfelt and
Carlsson-Kanyama (2010) termed local ecological
knowledge (knowledge about what can be grown
locally during different seasons, what can be grown
in the area, how the weather affects production, etc.)
and indirect ecological knowledge (e.g., knowledge
about how to store and prepare products). However,
neither observations nor interviews gave any direct
indications of emancipatory learning. Participating
in the local food system might not have enabled
actors to learn about themselves in the self-
reflective way emphasized by Mezirow (1991). On
the other hand, participating seems to have
developed customers' competence as local
consumers and farmers' competence as local
producers, thus making their choices and actions
more reflective and informed.
As farmers and customers met, communicated, and
gave feedback to each other, they seemed to have
the opportunity to learn, that is, to construe new or
revised interpretations of their experiences that
could change their attitudes and guide their decision
making and behavior, or other actions related to food
consumption and production. Such learning may
lead to better comprehension of the complexity and
context of the food system and the actors involved.
For example, when farmers volunteered information
about production methods or introduced "new"
vegetables to customers, the latter learned about the
availability of produce at different times of the year,
thus improving their understanding of food
production and allowing them to adjust their
Ecology and Society 15(3): 29
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demand for different food items. As a result,
customers could have been inspired to eat a more
seasonal diet, which in turn could decrease
transportation and energy inputs in cultivation and
thus lower the environmental load (Carlsson-
Kanyama 2004; Svenfelt and Carlsson-Kanyama
2010). Customers also learned to expand their
repertoire as local consumers: They learned about
what to ask for, when and from whom, and how they
could use and cook local produce. In turn, farmers
learned what the customers wanted, what they knew
about local food production, and what they thought
about the products offered at the market. Thus, the
farmers were able to adjust their products to fit
customers better and provide information about
production.
The learning and trust that developed between
consumers and producers at the markets seemed to
have contributed to the adaptive capacity of the
actors (cf. Walker et al. 2006). Consumers and
producers had the opportunity to adapt to each other
and to change their behavior in the direction of a
more robust food system. For example, the farms in
this study had high on-farm biodiversity, partly due
to the face-to-face interactions at the markets
(Björklund et al. 2009). Customers were confident
that they were getting the high-quality products they
demanded, and farmers knew that customers were
more loyal if they built social relationships as well
as market relationships with them. These closed
feedback loops can be seen as a prerequisite for
sustainable development (Levin 1999, Folke et al.
2002, Sundkvist et al. 2005). Because learning and
adaptation are defining characteristics of resilience
(Carpenter et al. 2001), we suggest that learning
customers and farmers contribute to a more resilient
food system.
It is important to note, however, that farmers and
customers did not make use of all the potential
learning inherent in face-to-face interactions; for
example, most customers did not ask specific
questions (cf. Svenfelt and Carlsson-Kanyama
2010). However, the institution of the market
established a baseline of trust for them (cf. Holloway
and Kneafsey 2000, Kirwan 2006), where meeting
and small talk was often enough to confirm the
relationship and the shared values. The personal
connection operated as an alternative expert system
in which consumers used face-to-face interactions
with producers rather than standard product
certification (cf. Moore 2006). In addition, the
relationship between increased knowledge, attitudes,
and consecutive adjustment of behavior is complex
(Gardner and Stern 1996, Stern 2000). Instrumental
learning is not enough for people to change attitudes,
and the "right" attitudes and values are not enough
to make customers or farmers want to learn more.
Likewise, the "right" knowledge or the "right"
attitude is not enough to change behavior, for
example, in the direction of a more resilient food
system. Knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors need
to develop side by side in order for changes in
behaviors to be sustainable (Gardner and Stern
1996, Stern 2000). The farmers' markets described
in this study seemed to have the potential to offer
such an opportunity for farmers and customers. The
actors had the possibility to express behaviors that
were in accordance with their attitudes and values,
while at the same time developing their knowledge
on factual matters.
Despite the fact that close consumer–producer links
foster customer loyalty, the farmers in this study
were in a weak position due to their low turnover
and high workload. However, we would argue that
in an exceptional situation, such as a food scare,
plummeting market prices, or failure of the
mainstream food system in any other way, these
farmers would be better off than those focusing on
the national, retail-led food market. It can be argued
that the farmers in this study have more adaptive
capacity because the personal relationships enabled
farmers to have a fairly secure income base through
loyal customers, leaving them less dependent on
standardized expert systems and large-scale food
actors. Thus, "local partnerships" buffer vulnerability
(cf. Lamine 2005).
CONCLUSION
Although learning is an important concept in the
literature on resilience and local food systems, few
authors have been able to describe the learning that
takes place and what it could imply for sustainable
development. We have attempted to show that the
potential exists for instrumental, communicative,
and possibly emancipatory learning through face-
to-face interactions at farmers' markets. This, in
turn, may enhance the adaptive capacity of the
producers and consumers at farmers' markets. The
adaptive capacity of those managing natural
resources (such as agro-ecosystems) is a
prerequisite for building resilience of these
resources. When farmers and customers use
interactions at farmers' markets to revise prior
Ecology and Society 15(3): 29
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interpretations (or make new ones) about, for
example, each other, food, and farming conditions,
they gain a better understanding of the complexity
of the food system and its context. This can
influence consumer choices and farm management,
and subsequently agro-ecosystems, in a sustainable
direction. Thus, although local food systems such
as farmers' markets are not the answer to all the
problems in the mainstream food system, they do
seem to work in an encouraging way.
Responses to this article can be read online at:
http://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol15/iss3/art29/
responses/
Acknowledgments:
The Swedish Research Council for Environment,
Agricultural Sciences and Spatial Planning funded
this research. The authors would like to thank
participating farmers and consumers. We are also
indebted to Åsa Svenfelt, Lisa Deutsch, the Subject
Editor, and two anonymous reviewers for useful
comments on earlier drafts.
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[1] "Crown" is the Swedish national currency (SEK).
... Social learning is thus an integral part of adaptive management in farming systems (Röling and Wagemakers 1998 ) . Indeed, the capacity to learn is essential for farms to be able to adapt (Sundkvist et al. 2005 ; Milestad et al. 2010 ) . This approach to management emphasises the capacity to deal with surprise, to learn, and to support fl exibility more than traditional farm management (Fig. 16.3 ). ...
... More generally, diversity also buffers and protects the system from management failures that are based upon incomplete understanding of the system dynamics under biological and climatic stresses. Mistakes and feedback systems allow farmers to learn and therefore actively adapt their farm management (Milestad et al. 2010 ) . Learning bene fi ts from combining different types of knowledge, e.g. ...
... Diversi fi cation and transition to short supply chains is often promoted as a means to strengthen income stability and resilience of farmers (e.g. Milestad et al. 2010 ) . However, Petit and colleagues ( 2010 ) showed that short supply chains increase the workload and the complexity of decision making at the farm level. ...
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... A third task is to link ecosystem service delivery to governance dynamics and other investigated changes, e.g., agricultural intensity (Norris 2011), hydro-climate (van der Velde et al. 2014, and/or land-water use and other socioeconomic sectors (Baresel and Destouni 2005). Studying how different farming systems affect ecosystem services and biodiversity composition can help us to understand the mechanism that drives changes through time (Fischer et al. 2008, Milestad et al. 2010, Andersson et al. 2015. http://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol20/iss1/art23/ ...
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... A third task is to link ecosystem service delivery to governance dynamics and other investigated changes, e.g., agricultural intensity (Norris 2011), hydro-climate (van der Velde et al. 2014, and/or land-water use and other socioeconomic sectors (Baresel and Destouni 2005). Studying how different farming systems affect ecosystem services and biodiversity composition can help us to understand the mechanism that drives changes through time (Fischer et al. 2008, Milestad et al. 2010, Andersson et al. 2015. http://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol20/iss1/art23/ ...
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