London welcomes its first farmers market

02 June 1999

London welcomes its first farmers’ market

By Johann Tasker

ABOUT 20 farmers and growers have signed-up to sell home-grown farm produce at Londons first farmers market which opens in Islington this Sunday (6 June).

The market, which will see farmers sell fruit, vegetables and meat from stalls in the Camden Passage area, will be opened by Agriculture Minister Nick Brown.

It has also won the support of Prince Charles, who sent a personal message from St Jamess Palace to the markets organisers.

“A farmers market is not a new idea,” the Prince wrote. “These age-old institutions went out of fashion. Like all the best ideas, its time has come again.”

Agriculture Minister Nick Brown will perform the opening ceremony at 9.45am.

Market organiser Nina Planck, a US farmers daughter from Virginia, said Mr Brown didnt take any persuading to be at the market early on a Sunday morning.

“I just wrote a letter saying farmers markets have been big news in Britain over the past year and he said yes,” she said.

Among the stallholders will be Chris and Jane Allan, who will be selling free-range pork from their farm in Everton, Bedfordshire.

“The price of pigs has been so dismal recently that to stay in business youve got to get really big,” said Ms Allen.

“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.

Since Britains first farmers market was held less than two years ago, 38 other markets have set up their stalls.

Birmingham launches its first farmers market today (2 June) and at least 10 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.

The boom in farmers markets also means more people than ever are buying food direct from farmers – as a trend reflected in the sales of produce from farm shops.

A growing number farmers with small and medium-sized family farms see farmers markets as a profitable way to market their produce.

Some farms reported a 20% rise in home-grown sales last year, despite the wider farming crisis, according to the Farm Retail Association.

At Bath, which held the countrys first farmers market in 1997, up to 30 producers now sell local 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.

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, as from Saturday, 12 June.

The city-centre site has 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-worth of produce in a matter of hours.

“We were absolutely amazed – I just couldnt believe it,” she said.

“It even surprised my parents who have been selling frozen fruit since 1977.”

In Wales, Carmarthens second farmers market will also be held next 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 who 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, on Saturday,12 June.

“Adding value rather than cutting costs is a sensible approach for some people,” said Mr Henderson.

Some of big supermarkets, which are never slow to pick up on successful new ways of selling food, are also trying to cash in on the movement.

The Asda chain has offered a handful of producers the opportunity to sell their wares from stalls at its supermarket in Colne, Lancashire.

The farmers market movement is now growing so fast that the Soil Association has helped set up a National Association of Farmers Markets.

And it is the supermarkets – the very people that farmers are trying to by-pass, that Soil Association project manager Paul Knuckle finds worrying.

“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.”

Nevertheless, the experience of farmers in the USA, where farmers markets started, suggests farmers markets are here to stay.

Thousands of American producers sell at more than 2500 farmers every week – although its not always plain sailing.

Theres a lot of hard work involved, says Sarah May, who helped set up Bath farmers market.

“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, agrees but believes that all the hard work will pay off for those farmers who are most committed.

“Of course there will be some fall out and some markets will fail,” he says. “But many people will continue.

“Ive a feeling that farmers markets will fill a niche and, eventually, that niche will be quite a large one.”

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