Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Farmers markets

Yesterday afternoon's Food Programme was about Farmers' Markets - amazingly, despite being a celebration of ten years of Farmers Markets it was an intelligent programme, not just an idealisation of the concept.

I actually have a bit of a love/hate relationship with Farmers' Markets. I love selling at them - the customers tend to be interested and chatty - but I have reservations about them being the answer for either the foodie consumer or the small producer.

There seems to be, to be honest, a big gap between the markets in Scotland and the majority of those in England (don't know about Wales or Ireland - Julia - did I read that your sister used to do markets????). To take a stall trading for 4 -5 hours in Edinburgh or Glasgow costs £70.50, add on petrol and any help you pay for and it means that to break even you need to sell about £200 worth of goods.

This means that unless you have a semi-industrial product with a guaranteed yield it is difficult to regularly attend markets. Everyone who grows their product has this problem - unless I have £300-400 worth flowers ready to pick on the Friday night there is no point in going, the salad, speciality veg and herb sellers are the same. The result is that the markets tend to have the same stalls no matter where you are in central Scotland - Caurnie Soaps, Ella Drinks, Inverawe smoked salmon. Now these are all good stalls selling fine products, but they are medium sized businesses selling to delis, health food stores and supermarkets, they are not the small scale farmer/producers that the markets were originally designed to support. The problem is that unfortunately these growing businesses are not really being joined by new ventures. There is not room at the moment for the Scottish equivalent of the French market trader with his couple of baskets of ceps or samphire.

This means that as a consumer the range of goods available at a Farmers Market is very limited - I did a quick poll round foodie friends and none shop any more at the markets, apart from Partick Farmers market "which has a good bread stall".

One of the questions raised by the Food Programme was whether the rules of a market over restrict the foods on offer, and whether would it be better to have food artisan made but from wider geographical area. I suppose this would in theory turn Partick Farmers market into something more akin to Borough Market. Should we in fact be encouraging people to do more of their weekly shop at a market - does there need to be bananas as well as carrots and swedes even though they cannot be grown commercially in the UK? Does it matter that many Farmers Markets are just a middle class thing? Should we be following Manhattan's lead in having Farmers markets in less affluent areas - should there be more funding available?

It was as I say, an intelligent programme that swam against the knee jerk reaction of "Farmers Markets" = "Good Thing".

I have one farmer friend who feels that, if the markets purport to help farmers, then he should be able to attend with any of his farm diversification be that vegetable boxes or bicycle maintenance.

Do people shop at farmers markets and do they find what they want there? What is more important, quality, choice or locality? The further you get into this food thing the more difficult it becomes.

I also hate buying my meat ready cut and shrink wrapped in plastic so that is 70% stalls ruled out.


carolyn said...

Our "Farmer's Market" is quite frankly a waste of time turning out for, hardly any different to our Saturday market although far fewer stalls and to be quite frank the produce isn't really as good as one would hope for. Sorry to say the local Waitrose is better - ouch. Having said that I have accidently stumbled upon some rather good Farmer's Markets but I doubt if I would make a special journey to revisit any of them.
Favourite market of all time Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk (Wed & Sat)and we did make special journeys to shop there but that was in the days when they still had a cattle market.Don't know what it's like now - oh dear I can feel a visit coming on!

Raindrops said...

Like you I have a love hate relationship with the farmers markets ( I am in London) many won't let me on (even the one that is 1 mile away) due to the fact I am not a farmer. Yet farmers from as far as 50 - 100 mile away are allowed on. Carbon foot print out the window there. Some consider me a craft stall so won't let me sell my soap. Yet you go out of London and soapmaking is considered a cottage industry and is allowed on. Also in London they allow Italian cold meats and cheese because it is food and not a craft they are allowed on. Carbon foot print yet again out the window. I moaned to the farmers market association who told me it up to the individuals organising the local farmers markets. They also told me that the food producers where complaining about none food items being on the farmers markets as they said 'people come to the farmers market with a set amount of money to spend and spending on none food items takes away revenue from them'. So they where currently addressing this. This was about 1 - 2 months ago have not got a clue what happened since. I use to buy at the farmers market but got peeved over the above so rarely do now. I am currently considering the option of buying say half a pig or sheep etc direct from the farms and freezing it.Tricia

Gigibird said...

When you explain about the financial costs of having a stall it becomes clear why farmers markets outside of London unless residing in very middle class enclaves aren’t up to much.
It is a very sad state of things when farmers aren’t able to offer small amounts of produce because of the overheads….
Maybe some sort of cooperative but how it might be run I have no idea.
You’re right about the meat, shrink wrapped anything puts me off.

PG said...

TO be honest, it's a bit of a trek for me to get to any of the farmer's markets, either a mornings' bike ride of 8 miles, (when I should be working) or an expensive and tiresome bus journey. And in this area they are pretty unexciting (all sausages and bacon) and far too expensive for my little budget. I'd rather patronise the butchers, who do buy local sourced meat, but who's prices are cheaper. I tend to get local things like honey/jam/veg/eggs from a variety of doorstep sellers, in differetn villages, which are reasonably priced and I can get to. Having spent a lot of my life on benefits I am not surprised that Farmer's Markets are a middle class enclave. If you can't afford to pay your next electric bill, then expensive organic bacon from a little farm is not going to be high on your list...

tash said...

I can provide another side to this story - in Northumberland we are really lucky to have good farmers markets, selling reasonably-priced, always-local food. I've heard stories of them being very mediocre, and as Gretel said, very expensive, but I find that to be the case more in the South and in big cities - we are more rural than that, and we have a good selection. There are around 3 a week (every week), in different towns, on rotation and this provides opportunity and availability. As for business size, the farmer I know well has what I'd call a medium business, he employs others, and has cattle, sheep and pigs, but there are tiny producers there as well (selling everything from plants, jams, preserves, local cosmetics and bread), especially those at Hexham.

I can definitely see your point though, it's taken as a certainty that the produce will be fresher and better cared-for, and for some that isn't the case, but with some pride I can definitely say that in some places, it really is as good as they say it is!

I'm not sure what a stand costs, I'm guessing it'd be more in Newcastle than in a more rural town, but I know my farmer-friend wouldn't accept paying that much unless it was guaranteed that there would be money to be made.

Thanks for writing such a fab post!

Jane said...

Tash I believe that there is a big difference between Scottish prices and English prices for stalls. Rosie Boycott in her articles about her pig farming venture quotes about £25 - 30 for a stall. Half what I would pay here (even in small town markets)

I don't know why Scotland is more expensive. I think that it is this cost that has made so many "farmers markets" nothing of the sort.

I would like to point out that I am not criticising the stalls that are at the markets, just wondering what would have to be done to make room for the very small producers who are never going to be able to pick £400 worth of sloes, ceps, gooseberries, courgette flowers etc. for a single market.
I use these examples as they are the crops that people have contacted me saying they have to sell but have no outlet for - and wondering if my van was a possibility.

I had thought that this post might annoy people but I have had a load of e-mails, many from the US, of people saying basically "glad to hear it isn't just me".


weirdbunny said...

Yeah my sister in law has a stall on various farmers markets.

She sells jam with the fruit picked from our small holding. She also sells some of our vegtables, herbs and she grows cut flowers here to sell and sells some potted plants. Oh and some times she bakes cakes etc..

The trouble is the price of the stall and the quantity of what you need to sell. People still don't understand that you can't buy the same produce from her all year round due to seasons.

There's also the question of are other stall holders buying stuff in to sell, (we are convinced some do) rather than them being homemade due to the cheap prices some stall holders are selling them at.

In fact my sister in law has said she's not bothering this winter now. Of course it does mean she'll loose her pitches and not guaranteed of getting it back. She's retired so does it more as a hobby than a business.

weirdbunny said...

Oh and the stall is £25.00 to £35.00 depending on size - Julia x