7 November 1997

They work in

the US, so

why not here?

More than 20,000 US farmers sell produce through farmers

markets, yet this form of retailing was virtually unknown in

the UK until two months ago. David Cousins found out why

it could all be about to change

THERE are certain things America does rather well. Moon landings, blockbuster movies and steaks the size of manhole covers are three that spring to mind.

But they also put us Brits to shame when it comes to putting food in front of consumers – whether its on a supermarket shelf or a diners plate. Not so much the quality (though thats pretty hard to fault), but the style and enthusiasm with which the whole process is carried out.

And heres something else to digest. The US now has some 2400 so-called "farmers markets", sites where several dozen farmers will set up their stalls and sell fresh produce to shoppers. It could be fruit and veg, meat, dairy produce, bakery products, anything as long as it was grown or made on the farm.

Its become a big business, too. More than 20,000 US farmers are reckoned to sell produce this way and a million consumers a week are happy to buy it. To say that its revitalised the local farming economy in some areas might be exaggerating a bit, but its beginning to look that way.

One person who was amazed at the number and variety of US farmers markets was Wye College research associate Harriet Festing. She had stumbled upon these markets on a previous trip to the US funded by Kent County Agricultural Society, the Canterbury Farmers Club and the Royal Bath and West of England Society, and wondered why we had nothing like them back home.

In August this year she gained a Winston Churchill Travel Fellowship to talk to those running US farmers markets. The aim was to see what makes them tick and – more particularly – whether what works in Dallas can be duplicated in Daventry.

She returned home firmly convinced that it could. For while Britain has not had farmers food markets (as opposed to the sort of retailer-run markets still sported by most market towns) in living memory, theres no reason why they shouldnt work here. In fact Bath and North East Somerset Council was able to use Harriets findings to help set up the first UK farmers market in the city on Sept 27 this year.

So whats the attraction? For consumers, its high quality, ultra-fresh food sold to you by the farmer himself (or his wife/son/daughter), often of a type unavailable from supermarkets. For farmers its unrivalled access to sympathetic consumers and low costs (most markets charge about £30 a day for the use of the stall). Not to mention on-the-spot consumer feedback and little need for sophisticated marketing skills.

Turn of the century

"Though they have existed in the US since the turn of the century, farmers markets initially declined with the arrival of supermarkets," says Harriet. "But numbers are rising again – in 1974 there were fewer than 100, now there are more than 2400 known to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and probably as many again they dont know about. Los Angeles alone has 42."

Harriet visited 25 farmers markets across the south and west of the US, as well as the 10 on the eastern seaboard seen on the previous trip. Though each reflects the farming, culinary traditions and ethnic mix of the area, they all have certain things in common.

"Though some markets may consist of no more than a couple of enterprising farmers stalls in a village, the larger ones will typically have 60 or 70 stalls," she adds. "All the bigger ones tend to have been initiated by the local council and have a manager who is on-site the whole time the market is running."

What do they sell? You name it. Seasonal fruit and veg are the core products but other foods are muscling in fast. So youll find peaches and melons in California, tomatoes, apples, herbs, asparagus. One farmer was selling 15 varieties of potato and making much of the fact that some of them were old-fashioned varieties.

Other farmers stalls sell fish, shellfish, cheeses, breads, meat… the list goes on and on. American consumers are no different from their UK counterparts in their relentless pursuit of the unusual and exotic. So the farmers who do best, points out Harriet, are often those who can offer something different.

Meat sales at farmers markets are still in their relative infancy, held back by the complexities of food hygiene rules and a feeling up to now that existing meat outlets have been OK. But fears over meat safety in the US are sending consumers scurrying to their local farmers market, where they can quiz the producer on the spot.

"The managers of these markets have been very imaginative in the way they have organised them," she says. "A bigger market may run three times a week, a Saturday market in the town centre, a Wednesday evening market in a restaurant area and a Sunday market in a residential area.

"They often make a festival of them too, providing music, cooking demonstrations, health promotions and even printing T-shirts. The consumers love it – its their little piece of the countryside. They can talk to the farmers, they know the food is fresh and high-quality and almost all stalls let you taste before buying."

Managers are keen to avoid several of stalls selling the same product, so potential new entrants have to demonstrate they have something new to sell. And while most strictly enforce their farmers-only rule, some markets do allow retailers in.

Pent-up demand

US farmers have responded to this release of pent-up consumer demand with characteristic enthusiasm. While producers of all shapes and sizes take part, its primarily the small and medium sized growers who have been best able to get involved.

However many bigger growers have found they can supply several markets, some up to 300 miles away – if they have the stamina. One of the growers Harriet visited supplied 20 markets in Colorado and had converted his 140ha (340-acre) family farm from maize and pigs to tomatoes, sweetcorn, onions and beans. He pointed out that there was less wastage than when supplying supermarkets and he got paid immediately!

"At a small market this could amount to £700; at a large one it could be nearer £1800," she says. "But he has to get up at 2.30am three days a week!"

So what of the UK? There were a couple of attempts to try to set up such markets here a few years ago, but they were sited in poor areas, failed to gain enough farmer interest and folded. The 1997-style attempt is an altogether more serious beast, with the city of Bath hosting three markets on Sept 27, Oct 18 and Nov 15.

"There were 30 vendors – all producers – and apparently 3500 customers and it was reckoned to be a great success," says Harriet. "They did it professionally, promoted it properly and have been inundated with interested phone calls from other local authorities. The real test now is whether it can keep up the momentum and become self-sustaining."

Perhaps inevitably, the Bath farmers market has a green tinge to it, with emphasis put on small producers, organic produce and eco-friendliness. But its success confirms that there is a strong demand among consumers for closer links with food producers than they currently get in their shrink-wrapped local supermarket.

"My gut feeling is that in the next five years we will have a lot of farmers markets in the UK," she concludes. "Not all will succeed, but they look as though they could be here to stay."

Above: Jumbo kiwi fruit (dont expect to see these in the UK). Right: Fruit and veg still form the core of most farmers markets, but other products are gaining its importance.

A sign at New York Greenmarket farmers market says it all. And consumers cant get enough of it.

Above: Farmers markets reflect the ethnic mix of an area and appeal to all income groups. Below: A typical indoor US farmers market.