John Craven's last word - The Future of Farmers' Markets

After 10 years of phenomenal growth and success, Britain’s farmers’ markets and farm shops are encountering their first big glitch as, along with every other type of retail business, they feel the effects of these grim economic times. Ten years ago there was just a handful of farmers’ markets and now there are more than 800. Farm shops were often dingy little sheds at the bottom of a long track – today many of them are impressive food halls in the fields.

A YouGov poll last June showed
 that a third of British households
spent money in these places; it seemed nothing could stop the rise of a
feel-good shopping experience which gave hard-pressed sons and daughters of the soil a new source of direct income. But that was before we’d heard of sub-prime mortgages.

Across the pond

Ironically the concept of farmers’ markets came, like the instigators of our current fiscal gloom, from the United States. California has half the population of the UK but twice as many farmers’ markets, all strictly controlled for quality and provenance.

Some years ago, just before the boom began here, I filmed at one of them for Countryfile, just off ritzy Rodeo Drive in Hollywood. Our researcher was devastated to learn from a stallholder that she’d just missed George Clooney doing his weekly shop for fruit and veg!

But despite the superstar customers it was a down-to-earth market, selling produce grown in and around the Hollywood Hills by smallholders and market gardeners. They certainly weren’t the Beverley Hillbillies, but they brought a blast of fresh, rural air to Tinseltown. In many ways, California’s farmers’ markets were the templates for our own. Some American supermarkets, though, are still a step ahead of their British counterparts – they green-up their image by giving market stalls space in their car parks. Now there are few towns and cities in the UK without its regular farmers’ market and hardly a farm without its own shop or stall.

Yet even before the present financial storms there were signs all might not be plain sailing ahead. The brand was being targeted by powerful forces. One of the world’s biggest food producers, Heinz, brought out its range of Farmers’ Market soups and the big supermarkets, keenly aware that shoppers use markets and farm shops because they want to support local producers, are now heavily promoting their own increasing number of local lines. On top of this is real concern
that some farmers’ markets and farm shops trade on the name but are not run by the genuine article, making shoppers confused. So step in the Farmers’ Retail and Markets Association (FARMA), to start fighting back. This spring it is launching a two-pronged campaign to boost consumer confidence. Their certification scheme for farmers’ markets will be extended
to include individual stallholders and
a new certificate for shops will also
be introduced.

“There’s been an increase in the number of outlets using the term ‘farm shop’ when there is no direct connection with a farm,” says Gareth Jones of FARMA. “It’s more than just a name – it’s something defined by place and people, and we’re determined that it should remain meaningful.”

To gain a certificate, farm shops will be checked by independent experts and will have to offer 40 percent of their stock from the farm and local area and 40 percent from the region; the rest can come from elsewhere. 

Focus on quality

It’s a move broadly welcomed by Adam Leyland, editor of the influential trade magazine The Grocer. “Provenance is very important and farm shops can be very price-competitive when they sell produce they have brought in from their own fields or made on their premises,” he told me. “But where they can get unstuck is in non-local items they have bought, possibly from inefficient wholesalers.

“Every shopkeeper likes to have full shelves, but if the price of these additional items is too high, customers feel they are being ripped off. Farm shops and farmers’ markets should stick to what they do best – providing a characterful ambience that is very different from supermarkets, where shoppers can talk to the people who produce the stuff they are buying.”

The second prong of FARMA’s campaign is to issue Verified for Local badges to market stalls. Again, owners will be independently checked to prove they are genuine. As Gareth Jones says: “There’s obviously something wrong if someone keeps five hens but sells lots of chicken on a dozen market stalls, so the badge will tell customers they are buying local, home-produced foods direct from the producer. We cut out the middle-man, not the quality.

Right now, many direct-from-farm businesses are feeling the pinch.
“I’ve never sold as many faggots,” one farmer, who’s more used to selling fine cuts of meat, told me. Some customers may be parking their principles while we’re in recession, but the concept is certainly here to stay. And these new assurance schemes should help them through the hard times and boost business when things get better.

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