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Food Markets and the Interesting Case of Fontaines-en-Sologne

I came across the anthology Do Economists Make Markets? On the Performativity of Economics edited by Donald MacKenzie, Fabian Muniesa, and Lucia Siu which takes on the question of what kinds of feedback loops, if any, exist between economics and what economics studies, a question of great relevance to our era where economic theory and practice influence one another in deep and complex ways. A sentiment in the introduction struck me: “No language is simply a mirror of what it sets out to articulate, but neither should languages be reduced to the social interests of those deploying them,” and another, “Economic rationality is not like Newton’s laws, which are supposed to be at work everywhere in the universe. It is a fragile property that must be carefully preserved by creating a hospitable environment.” Both do a good job of giving form to the ghosts that haunt me when I think about currencies and how they should be designed and built.

It also happened that the case studied in depth in the second chapter of the book is one of a regional food auction organized in Fontaines-en-Sologne, France in the 1980s which seems relevant to the briskly developing urban and local farming activities in the bay area and is especially interesting to me due to the appeal of the idea of backing a local currency with shares in a local food market. The region was one of the poorest in France and considered little more than a swamp and game preserve but after organizing a regional strawberry auction made a name for itself as a premium producer of branded and quality-assured strawberries, and this provided an economic boost to many types of farmers who weren’t previously doing very well. The construction of the auction was, in the way the auction operated, very strictly in accordance with the economic theory of auctions: a great deal of effort went into grading strawberry quality objectively and structuring the flow of information about quality, bids, supply, demand, and prices in the way auction theory demanded. On the other hand, side information still flowed through external channels beyond the reach of the designer of the auction and politics among strawberry producers and between producers, shippers, and the retail market were a decisive factor in its success and determined the ultimate form it took and how it related with the rest of the economy.

A key passage:

“The construction of the auction market formed groups, crystallized identities. The antagonism of opposing producers and shippers that I described earlier was still alive. But my new observations pointed out the emergence of a more solidarity-oriented attitude. Shippers were recognizing that the Fontaines-en-Sologne’s auction system—combined with the quality labeling of strawberries—allowed producers to exist as such. Producers who engaged in the early crusade for market transparency—that is, for a furthering of competition among shippers—were reluctant to enter into trade directly with mass retailers’ central buying offices. Without a “reference price,” they would find themselves ill-equipped for a defense of their interest in the market. They also though that new market arrangements would be too demanding in terms of logistics for a product with a short growing season. Besides that, a transformation of market practices would challenge the economic disposition that they acquired with the auction market—the stimulation of production through systematic monitoring and comparison of prices.

Market managers were trying to defend shippers, for instance, asking central buying offices not to bypass shippers. When they published advertisements about the market, they added contact details of the shippers who were acknowledged members of the market. When clients got in touch directly with the Fontaines-en-Sologne market, managers redirected them to the members—“we have known our shippers for a long time,” a manager said.

However, solidarity was somewhat less pronounced in the case of younger generations, confronted with other logics of social reproduction. Producers’ new family arrangements could prevent the producer from leaving his or her farm during auction days, because no other family member was available to replace him or her. Shippers who were not dependent on traditional circuits and who were engaged in business with mass retailers were also somewhat disconnected from a defense of the auction system. The identity of the “strawberry from Sologne” started to be questioned, as its quality was based more on a competitive tension than on a standardized assessment. Recently, and as a response to an audit process in 1999, market managers decided to rebrand Sologne strawberries. The fraises du cadran de Sologne have become the new Mian-Mian Sologne strawberries. Besides the fact that this new brand name may not raise much enthusiasm, it is noticeable that the word “cadran,” that is, the auction identity, is no longer part of the identity of Sologne’s strawberries, at least not as they are now marketed.

In short, the Fontaines-en-Sologne’s auction market was threatened less by the shippers’ collusive strategies against the producers’ move of fostering competition than by the transformation of commercial networks, the rise of agrofood mass retail, and their economic justifications. Competition between commercial networks seems to be playing a crucial role in legitimating certain market institutions and delegitimating others. The logic of market relations cannot be grasped only through the logic of market interactions. At the origin of markets there are never rootless and detached individuals. the History embodied in the different actors that intervene in the construction of a market and the history materialized in the preexisting circuits of exchange delineate the space of constraint of any new social construction.”

The English translation is the second chapter of this book and the pdf is available here in Portuguese.

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