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Pick farmers markets – don’t pick on them

July 9, 2014

Do you buy from farmers’ markets? Are they a sustainable alternative to supermarket domination or, as recent media reports would have you believe, an expensive luxury?

Farmers’ markets in the UK have been on the rise since the first one opened in Bath in 1997. Is this success as result of people wanting better quality, fresher produce, to support small producers and family farms who were going out of business due to the dominance of supermarket buying policies? Or is this because shopping at markets is a status symbol for the pretentious, wealthy and trendy?  The ‘build them up and knock them down’ mentality of the British tabloid press has led to some unfavourable coverage for markets recently. A couple of weeks ago there was an article by Rose Prince in the Daily Mail. ‘Have you been duped at the farmers’ market?’ screams the headline. This was a follow-up to an equally incendiary piece quoting Jay Rayner who accused farmers’ markets as being ‘costly’ and ‘for snobs’.

Last Saturday I visited Stroud Farmers’ Market which was celebrating its 15th birthday in operation. They sky was grey, there were frequent showers, but the market was packed with a variety of shoppers enjoying the atmosphere, tasting and shopping. This used to be a place where you would never contemplate leaving the ring road. The town centre is now full of interesting independent shops. We enjoyed a cup of tea in one of several cafés which were all doing good business. When interviewed in a local paper, market co-founder Kardien Gerbrands (known as Gerb) recalls “When we started the Made in Stroud shop in 2000 we used to have a joke about whether this year’s tourist had been in. Nowadays we have tourists in all week.’

Because I’m away from home I’m not in charge of the shopping and cooking, my purchases from the market were few and could be considered luxuries not staples.  I bought local cherries from a stall that only sells one type of fruit each week from their fruit farms which changes through the season. I tasted and bought some of the best charcuterie I have ever eaten made from good quality, local pork. A vegetarian millet and onion bake was carried home for veggie teen.  The vegetables on display had been picked that morning and the choice was amazing. I bought some creamy, new potatoes coated with earth (the ones we’d had from the supermarket were like bullets).  The produce available was abundant, fresh and varied. There was quality and variety I had not seen in the supermarket, plus by shopping this way the supply chain is shorter (the opaque and complex way most of our food is bought and sold accounts for scandals such as the horse meat affair).

The findings of Channel 4’s recent the World’s Best Diet demonstrated that the best diets were the ones that consisted of the least processed foods. Looking at the range of produce available at the market, you might conclude that Britain should be in the top ten, but take a glance at the stock and promotions in supermarkets.  It’s estimated that just 1% of men and 2% of women were obese in the 1960s (when there were very few supermarkets) compared to a quarter of the UK population today.

On the day after the Stroud market, I visited another town in Gloucestershire which could do with some TLC. Co-op dominates the shopping choice for food and I wanted some bread for our picnic. There were rows of Chorleywood method, mass-produced sliced bread in plastic (mainly white or blends) or bread rolls that were so stale they were rock solid. I could not buy edible, healthy, wholemeal bread rolls or a small loaf; the choice was simply not available for any price.

Supermarkets have been taken to task by the media in the past, so why should farmers’ markets be immune? Here’s Gerb’s response on Twitter to the Jay Rayner article:

If this blog post seems like commentary from a wealthy ‘snob’ then I hold my hands up and admit to being one. I am privileged to have enough money to make the choice to buy better quality produce; but why should good food (fresh, unprocessed and healthy) be available only to those who can afford it? I grew up in an era before supermarket domination within a family where money was very tight. We wore second-hand clothes and didn’t have a car or a telephone; but we ate really well. Our diet followed these principles long before Michael Pollan coined the phrase “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” It was an economic choice; could we eat that way now on a similar budget?

I think the tone of the recent articles is a kind of snobbery. There wasn’t a Range Rover to be seen near the Stroud market; just members of a community enjoying a market that has brought countless benefits to the town and environment.  The BBC Food Programme has documented initiatives where veg box schemes have given local people access to cheap, fresh, local vegetables and fruit. These schemes are run by people who want a change in the way we live; in contrast to the ‘big four’ which are driven by share holder value. Industrialisation of the food supply has been held up by some as the only way to feed the masses but it doesn’t seem to be doing a very good job right now; a third of the world’s food is wasted.

As a tourist to the Stroud market you may think my commentary is not as valid as those who live, work and shop there regularly. However, the farmers’ market where I buy my weekly veg every single week of the growing season has also been under the cool gaze of Rose Prince and The Daily Mail.  I met Rose Prince while she was shopping there although the images printed in article are from the fruit and vegetable stalls next to the fish market in Deira (where they do sell imports from the region) not the market at Emirates Towers (where the produce is all locally grown in the U.A.E); the title of the article inaccurately describes the market as ‘sort of local’.  Shopping direct from the growers saves me money as it is much cheaper than the supermarkets (for freshness there is no comparison). While I do not agree with a lot of what Jay Rayner says, his comments have been taken out of context by the Daily Mail. He does champion ‘big food’ including supermarkets as the only answer; treating food as a commodity is why we are seeing so many problems – read this if you want to know why I think he’s wrong. Also, many market traders have answered back to this well publicised article.

So I’m raising a glass and a cheer for the 15th birthday of Stroud Farmers’ Market and all the producers of good food and produce. It will take more than these few articles to change my mind about farmers’ markets but will their negativity have an impact on others? What’s your experience of farmers markets?

It was raining when I visited  last weekend so didn’t take my big camera and all pics are on my iphone. To see more, read an earlier post about the Stroud Farmers Market.

64 Comments
  1. July 9, 2014 1:24 pm

    Hello. I really enjoyed this post. I am so grateful for farmer markets as I get most of my food from one of them. I find it very interesting that people here (Spain) do not normally associate farmer markets with any kind of luxury. However, it is also true that our definition of farmer markets differs from the British one. For a while I lived in Canada, where farmer markets are similar to the British ones and I found that yes, there were luxurious items, but it’s a market. There are luxurious items everywhere. Fancier things for people with a high economic level to purchase. I don’t see why media has to pick on this. Anyway, thanks again for sharing your thoughts on the topic, I agree with most of what you said :)

    • July 9, 2014 3:10 pm

      When visiting Georgia recently (or Poland 15 years ago before the advent of supermarkets) I saw people who weren’t well off but they were healthy, well fed and the food was fantastic. I refuse to believe that the only way of feeding the world is via these profit-driven monoliths.

  2. July 9, 2014 1:30 pm

    I love your post and seeing all of the wonderful produce available at the market. We are very lucky to have an almost daily market where I live, it’s not a farmers market per se, it’s packed with fresh produce and heaps of choice and lots of stalls covering lots of cultures and cuisines. I buy my produce at the market weekly and am very happy to buy less and less at the supermarket. I buy a lot of salad and vegetables every week and it’s not only better quality than the local supermarket, the produce has a lot more flavour too, and it’s also a whole lot cheaper!

  3. July 9, 2014 1:38 pm

    We’ve found that our Fruit Gins are too expensive for Farmers Markets but sell well at Food & Gift Fairs or in the Food Hall at agricultural shows. Our local Farmers Market is packed with good quality, fresh food. The fruit, veg and meat is usually cheaper than the supermarket. The bread is more expensive than the basic sliced loaf but comparable in price to supermarket “finest” ranges as are many of the pies and other pre-cooked items.
    What annoys me more is when so called farmers markets are run where there’s no link to the primary producer and people are just buying in things to sell with little thought to their provenance.

    • July 9, 2014 3:07 pm

      I haven’t come across these more bogus markets in the UK although the term ‘farmers market’ has been much used and abused in Dubai. Like the sound of your fruit gins.

  4. July 9, 2014 1:49 pm

    Great post! I should at farmer’s markets (whenever possible) because I like to support small local businesses and I general find that the produce is much better. It might be a luxury, but I make cut-backs elsewhere to be able to afford it.

    • July 9, 2014 3:06 pm

      Yes – we are used to eating everything we want when we wanted it. My Mum would only make a quiche if there were cheap bacon off cuts available or soup with a free bone from the butcher. I would rather eat the fabled 12 pound chicken once a year than battery farmed 2 quid one every week.

  5. July 9, 2014 1:55 pm

    I love farmers’ markets and visit them whenever it is possible… This one looks wonderful! I’d love to walk through its aisles.

    Cheers.

    Rosa

  6. July 9, 2014 2:37 pm

    A great post and we love farmers markets! I always find to veg to be of fantastic quality and at a good price too.

    • July 9, 2014 3:03 pm

      This seems to be the common feedback. Maybe there are a few unrepresentative stallholders and markets but in the main I think they provide fresh, affordable produce.

  7. daver001 permalink
    July 9, 2014 2:46 pm

    The first farmers’ market opened as late as 1997? That seems quite late though, of course, there have been farm shop for a long time.One of my most vivid memories of childhood holidays in Cornwall way back when was the morning visit to the farm to buy milk almost straight from the cow – easily triple cream! Anyway, great piece and long live farmers’ markets!

    • July 9, 2014 3:02 pm

      You’re right Daver – markets have existed for years but many were driven out of most town centres and away from people’s reach in the 70s. Farmers’ markets in their current form (i.e. farmers, growers and producers selling direct to the public) started in Bath in 1997. While not unpasteurised, you can buy non-homogenised milk such as Jessie’s at many markets. That brought back childhood memories for me – the way milk used to taste. Delicious.

  8. July 9, 2014 4:59 pm

    For me, they are a waste of time. I like the stalls that sell cheese and beers, so maybe not a complete waste, but for fruit and vegetables, I prefer my greengrocer and even the Co-Op.

    But then, I know not everybody has a greengrocer anymore. So maybe I am lucky. Either way, 15 years is good going!

    • July 9, 2014 8:57 pm

      Thanks Peter. It’s the ability to have that choice – I’m not saying that the only source should be farmers’ markets, just other good alternatives to supermarket domination and ‘big food’ control of our food chain. Love a good greengrocer :)

  9. July 9, 2014 5:03 pm

    I have a great local farmers’ market in Twickenham where I shop regularly. But I am discerning. It’s not always cheaper than organic produce in my usual supermarket. It’s not always ‘local’ as many stall holders travel some way. But it is ‘everyday’ good fresh produce and you could do most of your weekly shop there. I think it promotes good healthy eating – I.e. Not processed, not wrapped in unnecessary plastic. I do know some ‘farmers’ markets’ in London though that are really just tourist traps.

    • July 9, 2014 8:47 pm

      That’s interesting. You’ve reminded me of a farmers’ market in or near Surbiton which my friend helped run. It’s held as a non-profit initiative and helps to raise money for local charities. I guess not all markets are created equal but the good ones provide real choice and an alternative.

  10. Dima Sharif permalink
    July 9, 2014 5:36 pm

    Love your post Sally. Well said. I absolutely agree, and “snobbish” is the industry that takes us for fools thinking that we can’t see beyond the glitter of advertising and campaigns! Most of today’s food is rubbish really like poison killing everything it comes in contact with. The real farmers markets are all we have left of not just good food but of ethical business practices! When your produce gets to the supermarket in bullet proof trucks by suited marketing executives, then it’s fishy to say the least! Choice has always been quality, freshness and source and never the bucks spent on polishing spoilt products calling them produce! So yes please allow us to snobbishly choose!

    • July 9, 2014 8:48 pm

      What worries me too is that the cost of some of the very cheap produce in supermarkets is funded at the expense of suppliers. We pay for very cheap food in one way or another.

  11. July 9, 2014 6:10 pm

    I love the produce and quality you can get in Farmers markets Sally, but I think the cost difference will exclude anyone who has not got disposable income. I do like to support local business so tend to use independents when I can but I can see why people will buy what their budget allows. Beyond cost it is a fact that our society has yet to learn to eat more unprocessed food, and when prepared meals cost less than making it from scratch, it is easy to see why our diet ranks so poorly. So educating children to enjoy handling and cooking fresh food needs to be a priority.

    • July 9, 2014 8:52 pm

      Absolutely Nazima. Many people don’t have the luxury of choice – but also this inequality of choice means that good quality food is the preserve of the well off – and that’s just wrong. The lack of skills to cook and feed yourself is a ticking time bomb and I support every initiative to change this.

  12. July 9, 2014 6:32 pm

    I grew up eating whatever was fresh at the time. Now living in the city, I love farmers markets. Their products are fresh and they take such pride in their produce. In the supermarket, you never know where it came from or how long it has been in the store.

    • July 9, 2014 8:53 pm

      It’s that connection to our food that has been lost…. and caused so many problems. Thanks for commenting :)

  13. daver001 permalink
    July 9, 2014 7:24 pm

    Eat less, eat better…

  14. July 9, 2014 7:54 pm

    Great post. I live in Seattle and our city is chockfull of farmer’s markets. It is almost a given that folks shop these markets. What wonderful culture and sense of community they bring to our neighborhoods. I love market day, it brings such an air of excitement and good feeling.

    • July 9, 2014 8:54 pm

      I’ve heard such great things about the markets in Seattle ….

  15. July 9, 2014 8:38 pm

    Buy the best you can afford and waste none of it, whether it comes from a farmer’s market or your local grocery.

  16. July 9, 2014 10:08 pm

    Great article Sally, really enjoyed reading it. Visiting farmer’s markets, food markets and indie food suppliers are some of the biggest highlights of my trips abroad. Love your headline too.. what can I say, I’m a sub at heart :)

    • July 11, 2014 3:42 pm

      Always enjoy reading about your market visits :)

  17. July 9, 2014 11:28 pm

    Such a thought provoking article Sally. I have just reached Kolkata and I am getting used to the fact that my mum walks to the best fresh produce market in the nearest neighborhood everyday, so that whatever she cooks, she cooks with the freshest ingredients produced locally. It is true that our earlier generations didn’t have to preach about organic local produce… that was the only option available to them. Unfortunately, commercial supermarkets are blooming here too, and selling products labelled organic at exorbitant prices or selling mass substandard produce at cheap prices. And people who have been buying from local markets all this while, are slowly getting into the commercial bandwagon.

    • July 11, 2014 3:43 pm

      That sounds sad indeed Ishita – there is very little put back into the community by these corporations too.

  18. July 10, 2014 12:31 am

    I love farmers markets but get frustrated by the fact most people that support & buy from them are people who either have surplus money to spend or are very keen and knowledgeable about food and where it comes from. What I get frustrated by is more that the people who are perhaps living on a budget or are overweight and clueless about cooking are not visiting these markets. I know this as I teach them cookery! Unless we instill appreciation of good food from school age I fear for their future in all honesty.

    • July 11, 2014 3:46 pm

      You are doing a great job Laura – it’s hard to see where this unhealthy path will end. The problem is that unhealthy food is subsidised and cheap (but ultimately we pay somewhere along the line).

  19. July 10, 2014 1:50 am

    I don’t visit my local farmers market nor Walthamstow’s famously long street market often enough but I’d be gutted if they weren’t there and I”m feeling quite guilty now. I think I need to buy myself a proper trolley to encourage myself to go more often as I certainly weigh myself down with produce when I do.

    My favourite thing about markets is buying different varieties of things you don’t see in the supermarket. Even a supposed foodie supermarket like Waitrose carries a very narrow range of what might otherwise be stocked by lots of different independents sourcing from a broader range of suppliers.

    • July 11, 2014 3:48 pm

      Even Waitrose uses misleading terms too. When you shop as close to the source as possible you can ask questions. Outdoor reared pork for instance means that they spend just 6 weeks of their lives outside.

  20. July 10, 2014 4:25 am

    Great post Sally. I’d much rather pay a little more to the producer for genuinely fresh and local produce that hasn’t been handled by a middleman than give my hard earned $$ to an impersonal multinational. That’s my choice, but at least Farmer’s markets allow that choice. I’m sure those naysaying journalists were paid well! The English market towns have long suffered from economic hardship, it’s time for their revival. Sellers at Farmers Markets in Australia now have to be certified as being primary producers, a recent and effective bylaw.

    • July 11, 2014 3:50 pm

      That’s really interesting to hear. I know I’m privileged to have the choice – but this should be something open to all.

  21. July 10, 2014 5:17 am

    I love your post.

    I live in Toronto Canada and we are very lucky to have organic farmers markets all over the city. Many are just pop up markets in the parks.

    I often pop over to the park on a Saturday morning to get some healthy treats.

    I believe in supporting our local growers and producers.

    • July 11, 2014 3:53 pm

      I hear so many great things about Toronto – glad to hear market culture is alive and well.

  22. July 10, 2014 5:37 am

    Bravo. The Saturday morning markets (we always go to several) are the highlight of our week.

    • July 11, 2014 3:54 pm

      Great to have the choice of a few Michelle.

  23. July 10, 2014 8:26 am

    I love farmers’ markets, Sally, not just for the great produce but for the atmosphere of which you write. Being able to chat with the farmers or their emissaries as well as my fellow patrons is part of the joy of the experience for me. Sure, I am part of the privileged group who can afford to pay for better produce but even when I am on holiday and not shopping to cook daily meals, I love to browse at the markets and see what’s on offer. Most stallholders are delighted to discuss recipes and offer small samples of their wares as well. It is an education much needed, if only folk would take their children to the markets and interact with the vendors. Money need never change hands to take advantage of the learning opportunities. Children need to see DIRT on the occasional new potato!

    • July 11, 2014 3:55 pm

      Hear hear Stacy – it’s not knowing where our food comes from that has lead to so many problems.

  24. July 10, 2014 12:52 pm

    Great post Sally and the I phone pics look great as well..Yes I’m glad that we now have a larger choice of farmers markets and local produce in Dubai too…while it’s not always convenient to shop for only Organic and local it sure has become a large part of my shopping list now…And the joy of seeing produce the size i’ts meant to be versus gigantic and enormous counterparts in supermarkets,makes one reach out all the more towards making better,healthier and wiser choices…cheers to a wonderful summer.

    • July 11, 2014 3:56 pm

      …and you Shy and thanks for the thoughtful comment.

  25. July 10, 2014 3:26 pm

    My farmer market is great value. Cheaper than supermarkets and amazing, fresh, quality. This post is a lovely reminder to use it or lose it.

  26. July 10, 2014 4:31 pm

    I’m not quite on team Jay Rayner here but I’ve never been to a Farmer’s Market I’ve enjoyed. Some buy selling bread for £5 a loaf, someone else with punnets of olives, piles of cheeses and the same old tubs of jams just don’t do it for me. A constant disappointment.

    • July 11, 2014 3:57 pm

      It’s interesting to hear of a variety of experiences Gary. I’ve been lucky to go to markets where it’s reasonably priced and you could do a big part of your weekly shop.

  27. July 10, 2014 6:52 pm

    Hi Sally, what I can’t grow at home, I buy at farmers markets. Everyone should have access to as much unprocessed food as possible. Great post!

    • July 11, 2014 3:58 pm

      I was brought up on home grown veg so I hear you Cheri :)

  28. July 11, 2014 5:00 pm

    I recently read the book that puts the quotes from the Daily Mail’s article into context (A Greedy Man in a Hungry World), really the point Jay Rayner is making about buying locally produced, high quality fruit and vegetables is that they’re a luxury for wealthy countries like the UK where we can choose to be “snobbish” about how our food is grown, but actually from the perspective of global food production with 7 billion mouths to feed, they aren’t a solution. Compared to yields from industrial-scale farming, local, highly diversified farms are really inefficient.

    Having said that, farmers’ markets are great for the local economy in small towns, like Stroud that you mentioned, which should really be the main reason to shop at them.

    • July 11, 2014 5:16 pm

      I intend to read Jay Rayner’s book and have read some extracts which are very persuasive. However the argument that industrialised-scale farming is efficient can be challenged by many factors. Diversification will save our food supply ultimately – just look at the Cavendish banana as one small example. There is stacks of evidence about why these methods will not feed the world – including the amount of waste involved.
      Thanks for raising this Simon.

      • July 11, 2014 6:00 pm

        Yes, it’s a hugely multi-faceted problem. Sadly the press does little to make things any clearer for us shoppers!

  29. July 14, 2014 5:27 am

    Great Post Sally – you enjoy away. It makes my blood boil when people start getting all judgemental about how you decide to spend your hard earned cash. Truth is that like all things in life it costs more for quality hand crafted goods and food is no different. I love markets – farmers, city, country kinds. Supermarkets have their place and so do farmers markets – long may they continue to enable food entrepreneurs to ply their trade and us to enjoy their efforts.

  30. July 14, 2014 5:50 am

    You know Sally, I’ve now read your post three times, trying to formulate a reply. I have to say, I’m a little disillusioned with farmer’s markets here – I find them elitist and expensive, and not necessarily the best quality I can find. I rarely ever go anymore, as I always seem to spend a fortune and not have much to show for it. I have much better luck with the basic big produce markets, or seeking out specialist retailers at their warehouses and factories. I buy very little at supermarkets these days, but we do make a great effort to find suppliers we like, build a rapport with them and support them – that, coupled with our gardening efforts, allows us to eat quite well in a way that we couldn’t afford if we were to shop regularly at farmer’s markets.

    Then again, maybe it’s as you said in your next post – it’s so trendy and hip and fashionable these days to shop at farmer’s markets, and I do hate to do what everyone else is doing.. ;-)

    • July 17, 2014 5:27 pm

      You give thought to everything you do Celia and I believe it’s the thoughtful careful sourcing, choosing and buying of food which is the important thing. If supermarkets delivered this that would be great, but the power they wield is not always used wisely and often leads to tasteless produce, small businesses failing, waste and food miles. I was brought up in a family where money was tight and we shopped like you do (growing a lot of our own veg). This seems so out of reach of ordinary families and it’s affecting their health. Thanks, as always, for leaving such and honest and enlightening comment.

  31. July 16, 2014 1:33 pm

    Until a few years ago I lived in Stroud and we went to the farmer’s market every Saturday (usually coupled with the weekly trip to Waitrose). Primarily we went to get eggs, but we always wandered around it. Hobb’s House used to have a stall, so often bread was purchased, there was also a stall that sold amazing sponge puddings and my sister’s personal favourite was the Asian food stall. I loved the atmosphere and the variety of goods on offer.
    Sadly where I currently live has very poor imitations of a farmer’s market. You certainly couldn’t do any of your weekly shop there, as most of the items on offer are what could be classified as ‘speciality’ items – jams etc. that you don’t need every week. Or alternatively the quality of the produce is dubious. I’m all for home-made items, but I don’t want them to look home-made, if that makes sense. There can be a distinct ‘jumble-sale’ vibe going on!
    Thanks for the photos of Stroud market. I don’t get back there anywhere near as much as I would like, so it was lovely to see it and read your thoughts.

    • July 17, 2014 5:29 pm

      Sad to hear you can’t find a Stroud equivalent. It is a bit special (love Hobb’s House bread).

  32. Lesley Hutchinson permalink
    July 16, 2014 1:47 pm

    I love Stroud’s farmer’s market, I was super impressed the first time I visited there about 2 years ago. Stroud is home to my gorgeous little grandson, so I know it very well. We have a farmers market in Alton on the second Saturday of the month, and I always go. Unfortunately its not always well attended, but the produce is great. We get a veggie box delivered every Monday from Riverford and I always look forward to what’s in it. I didn’t believe there could be such a difference to the taste of fresh organic vegetables but there truly is. Only problem is sometimes we get something in the box that we just don’t recognise and then have to try and figure it out, but its great trying different things. Enjoy your summer Sally

    • July 17, 2014 5:31 pm

      Riverford is fantastic – Guy’s principles and ethics are outstanding. I love that it has become such a large operation giving an alternative. I would definitely order from them in the UK. If you are in Devon, the Riverford field kitchen is well worth a visit. Maybe we could meet up in Stroud one day? Have a great summer.

  33. July 19, 2014 2:27 pm

    I love Farmer’s Markets, but they are an expensive luxury for me and where I live there is a very limited range of produce. I do get a weekly veg box delivery though, which I love :)

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