9 March 2001

Beyond pioneers wildest dreams…

Within four short years,

British farmers markets have

grown from nothing to an

industry that generates

annual sales of about £65m.

Seven markets in London

alone contribute £1.25m to

the rural economy.

In this special four-page

study we chart the progress

of Britains 300 regular

markets and ask whether or

not they can achieve long-

term growth. Edited

by Mike Stones

By Peter Grimshaw

PIONEERS of the farmers market movement could scarcely have expected the boom they have enjoyed since the first was launched fewer than four years ago.

But in a business that still has a frontier feel, how much of that success is real rather than imagined?

"It is difficult to get a handle on farmers markets," says Douglas Watson, Scottish Agricultural Organisation project co-ordinator for markets.

There is no statutory register, so both the number and character of markets is hard to identify. Figures become quickly out of date, and the list of locations barely indicates whether markets are daily, weekly, monthly or occasional.

In June 1999, the Soil Association predicted that there would be 50 markets by the end of the year, but growth was double that. Last year, as data from the National Association of Farmers Markets suggests, numbers mushroomed again. NAFM estimates that about 200 of the total 300 are weekly or monthly with the rest on a trial basis.

In Scotland there are probably 15 regular markets, with a further 10 at the pilot stage. Mr Watson predicts that there will be about 30 regular markets this season.

The NFUs report, Back to the Future – Farmers Markets, published last year, describes three quarters of markets as "thriving", with more than 5m customers expected in the 12 months to next May. It predicted that 4400 markets would be staged last year. An established market may attract about 1200 shoppers, but bigger ones can top 10 times that number.

Meanwhile, more than 0.5m people are believed to have done some of their year 2000 Christmas shopping in a farmers market.

An ADAS study, the Lincolnshire Farmers Markets Evaluation Report found that the most popular produce was meat, with nearly 45% of sales, followed by vegetables (36%) and dairy produce and eggs (21%). The typical spend is £5-£10 with few buyers spending more than £15.

So what lessons have been learned since the first UK farmers market in Bath? For Nina Planck, organiser of Londons first market in Islington in 1999, and who grew up selling vegetables from her familys farm in Virginia, USA, the message is familiar: The customer is king.

"We have learned that customers are fed up with supermarkets and factory farming. But that only brings them to the farmers market once," she says. "They are not shopping for charity. We have to listen to what they say. We have to give them good products, at the right prices. I tell farmers, competition is for ever."

Markets caught consumers imagination at a key time, says Jef Tuyn, of the Royal Agricultural Society of England, which acted as a facilitator in bringing together the interested parties which launched NAFM. "People knew farmers were facing real difficulties, they were thinking about food issues, and they were conscious of the environmental aspects of food miles. They particularly wanted to meet the people who produced the food," he says.

Meanwhile, many farmers claim markets provided a path to rescue in the economic blizzard. Last years NFU survey found that 96.5% of responding suppliers attended markets because of the incomes crisis.

Andy Neale, senior countryside officer at the Countryside Agency, says there is evidence farmers can trade profitably. Some believe that markets provide a window for other aspects of their business.

The NFUs Simon Rayner says the union supports markets partly because of their public relations value and the feedback from consumers to farmers.

These objectives include a move towards urban regeneration and pressure to encourage environmental, social and economic sustainability.

Local authorities were urged to set up initiatives reflecting their green credentials.

"Suddenly, markets had someone to help them with the job," notes Harriet Festing. Ms Festing won a Winston Churchill Travel Fellowship to study the farmers market movement in the USA and now works for Ashford borough council.

Jenny Hey, of NAFM, says local authorities can do much to help, without grants aid. "Through their reaction to applications, provision of locations and facilities, publicity and in a host of ways, local authorities can make or break a market project."

FARMERS MARKET FACTS

&#8226 300 markets in UK, 200 weekly or monthly remainder on a trial basis.

&#8226 NFU estimates market sales at about £65m/year.

&#8226 Seven London markets contribute £1.25m into rural economy.

&#8226 More than 0.5m shopped for Christmas at a farmers market.

&#8226 70% of markets claim a boost for other local businesses.

An established market can attract about 1200 shoppers or even more.