Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Buying Directly from Farmers: Tactics of St. Petersburg Consumers

Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Buying Directly from Farmers: Tactics of St. Petersburg Consumers

Article excerpt

With various types of hyper/super/mini-markets and grocery stores on every corner, St. Petersburg is the Russian city with the highest share of retail chains in food retail. Nevertheless, some consumers make the effort to search for farmers who can supply them with alternative types of food, then spend time driving to the countryside to pick them up. Within this group, some consumers distrust conventional chains to such an extent that they feel more confident about buying food from illegal street sellers than purchasing certified organic products at supermarkets. The aim of this article is to understand consumers' attitudes toward farmers and gardeners compared to their stances on conventional chains and state agencies intended to develop the agricultural sector, protect consumers, and ensure food quality and safety.

The study is a part of a broader project (1) investigating the attitudes and practices of St. Petersburg consumers who buy food directly from local farmers. The project employs the concept of short food supply chains--SFSC. (2) In conventional food chains, products are usually transported long distances and industrially processed, with the result that consumers cannot be sure where and by whom the original produce was grown. By contrast, in SFSCs food reaches consumers embedded with information on its origin and method of production, making it possible to reconnect consumers with producers, place, and nature, and thus restore their trust in food and a sense of belonging. The SFSC initiatives I have mapped in St. Petersburg include on-farm sales, collective purchasing groups, street trade, purchasing on the Internet, etc. The study deploys a qualitative methodology: 20 in-depth interviews (3) (up to 3 hours long) with consumers and experts and 24 questionnaires (80 questions) with consumers were conducted; observations and social media discussions, as well as secondary data (statistical reports, mass surveys, etc.), were also analyzed. The empirical data was collected in 2012-2014, before the food embargo was introduced. The interviews were transcribed and all empirical data put into Nvivo software. Thematic coding (4) was used for data analysis.

The purpose of this article is not to analyze the full range of consumers' motivations for participating in SFSCs, but to understand one particular aspect--their engagement in direct relationships with farmers as opposed to their attitudes to conventional food business and the state. (5) A short overview of consumers' reasoning will be presented here, with a more thorough analysis to be presented in future articles. To put it simply, my informants favored purchasing from farmers for two sets of reasons: 1) product-related, and 2) relationship-related.

The first group of reasons related to the uniqueness of the products offered by farmers. Consumers could not find the products they sought--or, more importantly, food of the desired level of quality, safety, and naturalness--in conventional chains. The second set of reasons was linked to the quality of relationships. My informants believed that producers/sellers in conventional chains lacked care, personal responsibility, and honesty in their interactions with consumers, but felt that their relationships with farmers benefited from these qualities. The various ethical aspects of consumers' participation in SFSCs (such as care for animals, environment, etc.) will be analyzed in future articles, but for the purposes of this article the focus will be on consumers' relationships with fanners. These two sets of reasons were closely interlinked: for example, the unsatisfactory quality of products in conventional food chains was also an indicator and outcome of relationship failure--a violation of the moral obligations to provide high-quality food--both of which spurred consumers to look for alternative solutions.

The informants interviewed within the framework of this study were highly dissatisfied with the quality of food sold in retail chains, as well as with how the state authorities monitored food safety in the city. …

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