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Farmers' Markets

A farmers' market is where producers bring their own produce for sale direct to the public. Such markets are, of course, nothing new they are part of Europe's history, if not of current experience.

By Alison Peacock  

Over the years, traditional, local markets already in decline have been superseded by the rise of supermarkets and out-of-town retail centres. Those that remain, in order to survive, have moved from traditional produce to wholesale products and reject goods. Consequently the new farmers' markets, where no bought-in goods are allowed to be sold, aim to address the negative impact of giant monopolies on consumers, producers, local economies and communities.

What are the origins of farmers' markets?

The renaissance of the farmers' market may be traced to the USA, where they have been an established feature since the late 1970s. In 1975, there were only 100, but by 1996 there were more than 2,400 farmers' markets. They support 20,000 farmers, attract over 1 million customers per week, and have a turnover of £700 million. One of the largest US initiatives, New York's Greenmarket, holds 25 markets per week at 18 sites: the Greenmarket in Union Square can boast 100,000 visitors on a sunny day.

The rise of farmers' markets in the UK has been influenced by the US experience. However, the impetus was provided by the 1992 Rio Environmental Summit, where Agenda 21 outlined the commitment of national governments to work towards a more sustainable future. Under EU regulations, a sustainable development strategy (with reference to the stimulation of rural enterprises) became the responsibility of local governments. One authority, Bath and North East Somerset Council, identified farmers' markets as a key tool. The first market was launched in Autumn 1997. Up to 30 farmers sold locally grown and processed foods to approximately 3000 customers. One year after the Bath initiative, 11 farmers' markets were known to be operating in England. Others (including one in inner-city London) were at the planning stage.

What is the basis of farmers' markets?

The organising principle is best summarised in the word local. Farmers' markets provide local producers with a forum in which to sell direct to the customer; enable local people to gain access to healthy, affordable food; encourage social interaction; and promote local identity. However, if these benefits are to be experienced, the temptation to use a limited number of local products as "window dressing" for the sale of imports from wholesalers must be resisted. Independent certification of produce as locally sourced is therefore recommended.

In order to protect the integrity and principles of farmers' markets, especially as interest increases with their success, a formal regulatory structure may need to be developed. To this end, there is a plan to create a UK Farmers' Market Forum, which will deal with issues such as the setting of trading and protection standards (specifically around sustainability and accountability) and training, advice and representation for the sector. For the time being, a useful rule of thumb (at least within the UK context) is: "if you see oranges, it's not a farmers' market".

How do farmers' markets work?

A successful farmers' market requires the active participation of three key players producers, customers and local authorities each of which will have their own agenda. Producers are attracted by low-cost outlets; customers by access to fresh, quality produce; and local authorities by a means of revitalising the local economy and community life. Yet there is no single, definitive model. In Bath, the farmers' market was launched by the local authority, and subsequently handed over to the producers. However, producers in Cullompton have since launched their own market, and other farmers' markets such as the Bristol initiative remain under local authority control. This diversity underlines the flexibility of farmers' markets, which reject corporate imaging in favour of development according to local interests and needs.

So where is the best place to start? The initial impetus might come from customers and producers, but in the planning stage political will is essential. Consequently, those interested in setting up a farmers' market (particularly those in EU Member States where local authorities carry responsibility for Local Agenda 21) are advised to approach their local authority to discuss the possibility of support and set-up funds. In Bath the City Council and Environment Centre provided the initial investment to promote the farmers' market and pay for a market organiser. Meanwhile, the Environmental Health Department advised on food hygiene issues. It might also be possible, as in the US, to obtain financial support from health and welfare programmes.

It is necessary to carry out local research contact other producers and growers, allotment (rented garden) associations, farm shop owners etc and set up a meeting to generate enthusiasm. It is important at this stage to ensure that a farmers' market builds upon, rather than undermines, existing activities. Local authorities in the South East of England currently investigating farmers' markets are looking at the relationship with Women's Institute markets (a peculiarly British tradition of co-operative stalls), food co-operatives, box schemes, and other food links. There is also a need to take account of the potential impact on existing street markets and other local businesses. However, far from taking business away, farmers' markets actually attract trade: in Frome, shops report a 20% increase in turnover on the day of a farmers' market.

Once enthusiasm and support have been generated, what makes a successful farmers' market? Three conditions for success have been identified:

First, in order to survive, markets should be located within a large and affluent population. This means that, on both sides of the Atlantic, farmers' markets have tended to target middle-class professionals. However, established markets in the US have launched a Farmers' Market Nutrition Program to help low income families to obtain fruit and vegetables. They also provide essential support for struggling, small-scale producers unable either to compete with "agribusiness" or to meet supermarkets' demands.

Second, markets need organisers with responsibility for planning the promotional aspects of a market which are essential for drawing the crowds. Festival and music events are used to create a fun atmosphere, and in the US this aspect of farmers' markets is highly developed. Some UK markets aim to copy the fashionable image of the US farmers' markets "let's make buying good food sexy" - but most are simply concerned to make shopping a sociable and enjoyable activity.

Third, markets should offer a diverse range of fresh produce. As part of their planning strategy, local authorities in the South East of England identified a wide range of local products that are available throughout the year, and can be bought together in a farmers' market. In the US the New York State New Markets/New Farmers Program even promotes the establishment of small urban farms to supply the markets.

What are the benefits of farmers' markets?

Customers, especially those in towns, gain the opportunity to purchase fresh, local produce direct from the producer: quality and relationship is one of the most common reasons for shopping in a farmers' market quoted in surveys. The direct relationship with the customer is valued by the producer, both on financial and personal grounds. Moreover, producers appreciate the regularity and the security of a farmers' market. This is especially important to new and small-scale producers: in the US more than one third of farmers who use farmers' markets use them as their sole marketing outlet.

From the perspective of the wider community, local authorities value farmers' markets as a way of building local identity, increasing farm incomes and helping smaller, market towns to respond to the challenge of retailing (in particular the growth of out-of-town shopping centres). There are clear environmental benefits: by emphasising the local, farmers' markets simultaneously reduce food miles and consumption of resources. If carefully prepared and implemented, they have the potential to make a significant and lasting contribution to economic, social and environmental sustainability.

Researched and produced for ECG - the European Contact Group on Urban Industrial Mission - by Alison Peacock (March 1999).

Liam Egerton, Local Food for Local People (Soil Association 1998). Available from the Soil Association, Bristol House, 40-56 Victoris Street, BRISTOL, BS1 6BY. Tel. +44.117.929.0661. Fsx +44.929.2504. Email info@soilassocistion .org

Further reading:

- Alan Chubb, Farmers' Markets - The UK Potential (Eco-logic Books 1998)
- Harriet Festing, Farmers' Markets - An American Success Story (Eco-logic Books 1998)
- Patricia Tutt and Deborah Morris, editors, Bath Farmers' Market - A Case Study (Eco-logic Books 1 998)
Available from the Soil Association (address above), or from Eco-Logic Books at 10-12 Picton Street, BRISTOL BS6 5QA. Tel. +44.117.942.0164

More information on ECG can be obtsined from Tony Addy or Alison Pescock st the ECG office: c/o The Willism Temple Foundstion, Manchester Business School, MANCHESTER, M15 6PB, Great Britain - Tel. +, Fax + - Email

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