11 June 1999

FARMERS FIRST IN CITYS HEART

EARLY last Sunday morning, while most of the country was still sleeping, Chris and Jane Allan drove out of the farm gate and pointed the nose of their van in the direction of London.

Their cargo – free-range pork from their farm in the Bedfordshire village of Everton – was soon trundling south along the A1. Past the commuter towns of Stevenage and Welwyn Garden City they drove, past Hatfield and Potters Bar and suburban Barnet and Lady Thatchers Finchley, and straight into the heart of the city. Slap bang, in fact, into the centre of Islington.

Not the sort of drive many farmers have done recently. Unless, of course, they were on the way to a pig farmers march on Downing Street. But this was no farmers protest. This was a journey to Londons first farmers market.

Like 20 other farmer-growers from farms around the capital, Chris and Jane were in London to sell farm produce from stalls in Islingtons Camden Passage.

"The price of pigs has been so dismal recently that to stay in business youve got to get really big," says Jane. "Expanding like that didnt appeal to us and we saw signing up for a farmers market as the best way to go."

More and more farmers are doing the same. Farmers markets, where producers sell their own produce direct to the public, are booming. Since Britains first farmers market was held less than two years ago, 37 other markets have set up their stalls. At least ten markets will be held this month alone. The Soil Association, which runs seminars on organising farmers markets, expects the number to rise to at least 50 by the year end.

But the Islington site is special. Its the most high-profile market so far and has already attracted acres of media coverage. Its in the heart of one of Londons trendiest boroughs – home to dozens of wine bars, restaurants, and the Kings Head Theatre on Upper Street. Famous former residents include Tony Blair before he became Prime Minister. Little surprise, then perhaps, that farm minister Nick Brown quickly agreed to open the market at 9.45am on a Sunday morning in June.

"Customers can meet and talk to the farmers who grow the food and gain a better understanding of farming," he said. "In turn, farmers can learn at first hand what consumers are looking for; this can lead to new opportunities to improve their businesses."

Market organiser Nina Planck, a US farmers daughter from Virginia, says Mr Brown didnt take any persuading. "I just wrote a letter saying farmers markets have been big news in Britain over the past year, and he said yes," she says.

Of course, some farmers are no strangers to London. Jenny Usher, an organic grower from Essex, has been selling organic vegetables at the Sunday market at Spitalfields in east London for the past six years.

But Spitalfields also attracts greengrocers who buy in organic fruit and vegetables rather than doing anything so earthy as growing it themselves. And the purists argue that Islington, where all the food is sold only by the people who grow it, is Londons first proper farmers market.

Islington even won support from Prince Charles, the countrys most well-known organic farmer. In a letter sent before the launch date, the Prince wrote: "A farmers market is not a new idea. These age-old institutions went out of fashion. Like all the best ideas, its time has come again."

Naturally, not all producers are suited to farmers markets. Big arable growers would be hard-pushed to find any takers in the streets around London for a trailer load of oilseed rape unless they happened to bump into a commodities trader.

But a growing number of farmers with small and medium-sized family farms see farmers markets as a profitable way to market their produce. If all 38 established markets attract an average of 20 producer-sellers, thats more than 750 farmers already using farmers markets to sell direct to the public. And the number continues to grow.

At Bath, which held the countrys first farmers market in autumn 1997, up to 30 producers now sell locally grown and processed foods to approximately 3000 customers every month. The market was so successful that the farmers and food producers involved have now formed an independent association to run it on a regular fortnightly basis.

Scots and Welsh

The markets are a hit with consumers in Scotland and Wales too. Perths first farmers market in April is now being repeated on a monthly basis from tomorrow (Saturday). The city-centre site proved a runaway success, helping small-scale growers to increase profit margins and boost their incomes. Jacalyn Henderson, a farmers daughter from Blairgowrie, sold over £1000 of fruit in just a few hours.

"We were absolutely amazed – I just couldnt believe it," she says. "It even surprised my parents who have been selling frozen fruit since 1977."

In Wales, Carmarthens second farmers market was held last week. Gordon Anderson, the county councils head of Economic Development, said: "We have had so much positive feedback from the first farmers market that everyone involved was excited about putting together a second."

So far, farmers markets have usually been set up by local councils which sometimes found it difficult to persuade local farmers to take on stalls. But producers have gradually been won over, and some markets are even being held on farms. Nick Hardingham and his wife Joan will hold a farmers market at Alder Carr Farm, Needham Market, near Ipswich, tomorrow (Saturday).

"We found that adding value rather than cutting costs was a sensible approach for us," says Nick.

Some of the big supermarkets, which are never slow to pick up on successful new ways of selling food, are also trying to cash in on the trend. The Asda chain has already recognised farmers markets as a useful marketing tool. Bosses have offered a handful of producers the opportunity to sell their wares from stalls at its supermarket in Colne, Lancs.

The farmers market movement is now growing so fast that the Soil Association has helped set up a National Association of Farmers Markets. But it is the attitude of the very retailers which farmers are trying to by-pass that worries Soil Association project manager Paul Knuckle.

Interest conflict

"Theres a potential conflict of interest between supermarkets and the farmers," he says. "Supermarkets arent charities and you have to ask how long their goodwill is going to continue. Theres nothing more profitable for farmers than selling direct to their customers."

So are farmers markets here to stay? The experience of farmers in the US, where farmers markets started, suggests that they are. Thousands of American producers sell at more than 2500 markets every week. But its not all plain sailing. Theres a lot of hard work involved, says Sarah May, who helped set up Bath farmers market and now works as a consultant.

"Its actually quite a challenge for producers to fit in farm work and all the work that goes into attending the market," she says.

Jef Tuyn, of the Royal Agricultural Society of England, sits on the steering committee of the farmers market at Stratford upon Avon. He agrees, but says that all the hard work will pay off for the farmers who are most committed.

"Of course there will be some fallout and some markets will fail," he says. "But many people will continue. Ive a feeling that farmers markets will find a niche and eventually that niche will be quite a large one."

The boom in farmers

markets means that more

people than ever are

buying their food direct from

farmers. Johann Tasker

examines a growing trend

during a week which saw

farm minister Nick Brown

open Londons first market

held by producers in

Islingtons Camden Passage

A GOODWAYTOCUT OUT

MIDDLE MEN

Go to your local supermarket and ask a shelf-stacker on the vegetable aisle if he knows the season for purple-sprouting broccoli. The chances are he wont: Britains big retailers arent exactly noted for being experts on seasonal produce, despite selling about 85% of the fruit and veg we eat.

Farmers markets completely by-pass the supermarket system of selling food – to the advantage of buyers and sellers. Shutting out the supermarkets means shutting out the "middle man". Farmers are left to increase their own margins and take a bigger slice of the profits, often under-cutting supermarket prices for fruit and vegetables, if not for meat.

There are benefits for consumers, too. Customers who care increasingly about food quality can meet and speak directly to the farmers who produce it. They can ask, and be told in detail, how their food is grown or reared.

Its a two-way thing. Producers can calm consumer fears over food scares and pesticide poisoning while taking on board shoppers anxieties about modern farming practices. And if the produce is of a high enough quality, it sometimes helps stimulate sales directly off the farm on non-market days, particular for producers with farm shops.

Farmers markets are good for the rural economy and the environment. Buying from local producers keeps money in the pockets of those who live and work in the local area while reducing the number of miles that food travels between farm and plate.

A recent study mentioned by Birmingham City Council, which held its first farmers market last week, found that food items such as apples, lamb and potatoes travelled an average of 3000 miles before they reached the supermarket shelves. Farmers markets reduce that distance dramatically, frequently to less than 10 miles, meaning less pollution.

Sound too good to be true? Well, despite their success, farmers markets arent for everyone. They require a great deal of commitment. There are the long hours, often at weekends when everyone else is relaxing, the inconvenience of setting up and packing away the stall, and then dealing with awkward customers who are "always right" even when they arent.

For producers who want to find out more, the best idea is probably to go along to the nearest market and chat to the farmers behind the stalls. But dont expect to find any purple-sprouting broccoli, at least for the time being. It went out of season last month and wont be back until January. JT

WHERETO FIND

ONE NEAR YOU

FARMERS markets started in the south-west but soon spread to the rest of the country. There are now 38 established sites and new markets are springing up all the time. After a number of pilot markets throughout the summer, the Soil Association expects the regular number to have grown to at least 50 before the year end.

Established markets, many of them held regularly on a weekly, fortnightly, or monthly basis, are listed below.

For details of forthcoming markets and information on setting up your own farmers market, write to: Farmers Markets, Soil Association, Bristol House, 40-56 Victoria Street, Bristol, BS1 6BY. Alternatively, e-mail: lfl@soilassociation.org

Market Contact Phone

Ashford (m) Harriet Festing 01233-330240

Bath (f) Richard 01761-472549

Bideford (m) Paul Naisbett 01237-478777

Birmingham Nicci Boore 0121-3035449

Bournemouth (w) James Hyde 01202-529248

Bradford (m) Carolyn Lowing 01535-670950

Bridport (m) Tim Crabtree 01308-459050

Bristol (w) Grace Davis 0117-9224013

Buckfastleigh (w) Richard Rogers 01803-762674

Cardiff Steve Garratt 01222-227982

Chard Carmel Wilkinson 01460-260354

Crediton (m) Barry Collins 01404-841672

Cullompton (m) Tracey Frankpitt 01884-33107

Frome (m) Karen Harley 01373-455420

Glastonbury (m) Kate Hall 01749-343399

Hailsham (f) Diana Lock 01892-6022743

Hatfield (m) Margaret Donovan 01707-357377

Holmfirth (m) Gerald Riley 01484-223474

Keighley Carolyn Lowing 01535-670950

Lewes (m) Topsy Jewell 01273-473351

London (w) Nina Planck 0171-354 9968

Lostwithiel (f) Joy Cheeseman 01840-250586

Malton (w) Chris Woodfine 01751-473780

Monmouthshire (m) Steven Shearman 01600-860730

Needham Market (m) Joan and 01449-720820

Nick Hardingham

Okehampton (m) Claire de Vries 01837-55611

Poundbury, Dorchester (m) Tim Crabtree 01308-459050

Perth (m) Heather Middleton 01738-475341

Stafford Guy Simmons 01785-248394

Stoke Climsland (m) Helen Adams/ 01579-370493

Clare Bullimore

Stratford-upon-Avon (m) Edward Wheaton 01789-205888

Tring, Herts (f) David Younger 01442-825097

Thame (m) Dorothy Cussens 01865-891197

Winchester Heather Muir 01962-846381

Weston-super-Mare Graham Quick 01934-634850

Wincanton Julian Brooks 01963-435029

Worcs Wiz Clift 01886-821235

Yeovil David Hiscock 01935-431664

(w) weekly market; (f) fortnightly market; (m) monthly market