Question of the week: Have farmers’ markets become an over-priced, middle class, minority interest?

oranges_farmers' _market

Oranges on sale at a farmers’ market

It’s easy to find a farmers’ market within a reasonable distance these days, whether you’re a city dweller or you live out in the sticks. At best they sell hand-raised produce and home-made supplies fresh from a farm-gate or market garden — small producers, selling reasonably priced, seasonal bits and bobs, and other artisanal tidbits. At worst, they’re over-priced, commercial wallet-traps,  and don’t have a single farmer on site. Are farmers’ markets the real McCoy, or have they become a middle class, minority interest that serve to further disenfranchise less fortunate demographic groups who would most benefit from fresh, unprocessed produce?

 

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32 Comments

Filed under Food Issues, Produce, Question of the week

32 responses to “Question of the week: Have farmers’ markets become an over-priced, middle class, minority interest?

  1. John Fairley

    Easy. Just ask and assess whether the stall is for the benefit of the small producers. They are not all producers running the stall as you need to be quite big to afford the overheads of a market. Went to eveleigh on Saturday in rush, parked on wrong side of street and extra $99 in fines as o’head! My silly fault!

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  2. This is a very interesting question Rachel. We are farmers but we do not sell direct to the public for many reasons. As food lovers we live too far into the sticks to attend regular farmers markets which is part of the reason we grow, bake and slaughter much of our own food. When we travel we do love the atmosphere of farmers markets but sometimes I wonder if you look past the coffee machines, designer dogs etc…how many farmers are actually there? I admit, I have never been to a big city farmers market such as Eveleigh.

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    • Interesting points Jane. I must admit i love the atmosphere of a farmers market – unless i’m running in for one or two things, in a rush, and have to fight the crowds, and buggies, and dogs – then i just feel irritated! Interesting observation about the coffee machines, etc. You can get a really expensive (and small) bacon and egg roll for about $8 at ours!

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  3. It appears that our experience is different to others. I run the Mansfield Farmers market in NE Vic (near Mount Buller) and not only is ours a “real” farmers market (with Vic Farmers market association accreditation to boot) but also not overly priced. Sure some items are expensive – but the choice cuts of meat would be expensive if you bought them at the local butcher or the supermarket too. I know that I can shop on a budget and still get some “real meat”, great vegies (often heirloom or chemical free), free range eggs, delicious cheese, olive oil…… the list goes on, for a reasonable price. Our market also serves as a meeting place for the local community. Held once a month, there are many who come and hang out at the market to catch up with friends, drink coffee and chat. Touch base with each other. All of the producers at our market have made /grown / reared/ baked that which they sell. Consumers get to ask for cooking tips, dietary issues, hints for other items to go with it…… Yes, I am one of the converted but not all markets should be tarred with the same brush.

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    • Accreditation is an interesting concept. When did your market start? And why was accreditation thought to be necessary? What does it take to get accreditation – what credentials must they have? If i’m ever in the Mt Buller area i’ll look up your market – sounds like a good’un!

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      • Our market started in September 2009 (so just over three years old) and was accredited by first birthday. VFMA accreditation is a choice but offers (amongst other things) support for market and producers, guarantee to the consumer that the person is not a reseller, PR and marketing for the market……. The list goes on. As the Victorian public become more aware of the accreditation system there are some who will be wary of non accredited markets and only support those with the vfma tick. Accreditation process requires a certain percentage of stallholders to hold individual accreditation – they list what they grow /make etc and have guaranteed that they have grown / made the product that they sell. From ouroint of view very worth while.

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      • Interesting information on the accreditation system. Out of interest, what percentage of stallholders must have accreditation for a market to gain the VFMA tick? And what percentage have accreditation at your market? Is the system driving more demand for stalls from true growers/producers – e.g, are producers from non-accredited markets trying to get involved with yours, instead? Have loved your input to the discussion. Thanks for joining in, Alli.

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  4. Tiki19

    There’s a farmers market website somewhere that lists accredited markets that I used when moving from Melbourne to Perth. I agree that the accreditation is useful – markets don’t have to have it, but the ones that do have it you can shop at knowing that you are supporting the farmers directly. I’ve shopped at and held stalls at markets all my life – starting from age 7 or so, filling popcorn buckets and labelling jars of herb seeds for my parents’ stand, and then later spending many happy Sundays at trash and treasure markets, produce markets, artists’ markets, night markets and whatever I could find wherever I was living. In that nearly-forty-years (and presumably long before) there’s always been a battle between quality of content and the $2-shop-appeal, you just pick your markets based on what attitude they take to it. The new trend though is swaps – garden swaps, vegie swaps, bring-your-bike-and-share-repair-skills swaps, clothes swaps. All you need are a few friends and neighbours and you’ve got genuine local provenance. Maybe I should start an artists’ swap. 9×5″, anyone?

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    • I’m pleased to hear that the accreditation system works for you – and your life-long love of markets! I like the sounds of swaps, too. Will have to do some research and see what is on offer in my neck of the Sydney woods! Thanks for dropping by and joining in the discussion.

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  5. Greg

    Before we start questioning the value of farmers markets maybe we should look at what you need to make a market a farmers market?

    Over here in WA, the weather is hot, the land expensive, labor costs ‘out there’ and the small farmers are few. Farmer’s markets bob up here all over the place just like other locations in Australia because the public wants that connection and to shop in that atmosphere.

    Let this be an urbanites middle class wake-up call. Farmers markets won’t be able to exist without farmers. No genuine farmers at your market? Ask yourself why.

    A rort, to rip off the consumer? No. It’s simply that there are hardly any real small farmers left! FM are just clear evidence of this. I know. I have a business that buys direct from growers not wholesalers. We are always desperate to find new suppliers. Our suppliers are mostly over 60, doing it as a hobby or about to quit or selling their land because they can get more for the land than they would from 20 years of farming it..

    You can’t complain about not having genuine farmers if there simply aren’t enough to fill the stalls. The problem isn’t that FM are over priced for the middle class minority, it’s that there simply aren’t enough small growers left to fill the demand. For FMs to survive, or get off the ground, they’re relaxing the rules a bit – let in a few retailers who buy at the wholesale markets. Its not a real farmers market I agree (and I want REAL farmers markets)…buts its a market afterall.

    It’s easier for FM in rural areas, or those who got established early in higher demographic areas. Newer ones…well, I just wonder where the growers are going to come from.

    And before everyone starts saying how cheap FM are in the UK and Europe just remember its not an even comparison. Here’s some facts. The EU has 13.7 million ‘farmers’ who claimed 39billion Euro in farm subsidies. You only need have 1 hectare of land to be a farmer. The average ‘farm’ in Europe is 12 hectares. In Australia we have about 150,000 farmers, the average size of farm is 3400 hectares. We have no farm subsidies.

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    • Excellent points, Greg, and i am so pleased that you have joined the discussion. It’s really sad – and shocking – to think that farmers markets aren’t really genuine farmers markets because we don’t have enough small farmers left to fill the stalls! From others who have joined the discussion it seems that that the overheads of coming to market can be high – and some farmers, as we know, will be way out in the sticks making it an unsustainable trip, particularly if business is struggling as it is. Prices may be higher – by genuine farm stall holders – to help meet these costs.
      You also raised an interesting point about markets perhaps not being genuine but being there because consumers want that connection … which is a good thing in itself. Do you attend markets yourself, if so, which ones?

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  6. Rachel, interesting question again. The Capital Region Farmer’s Market is five minutes from my home and Peter and I try to go every Saturday morning, unless there is something more pressing we have to do. This is the best, dedicated farmer’s market in the country http://www.capitalregionfarmersmarket.com.au/information.html The market is ‘strictly farm/food product related’ and follows simple rules of ‘simple rules of authenticity, credibility and sustainability’. However, there are actually very strict guidelines, as you can see in the link I’ve pasted. According to food producing friends, a stall is not expensive, unlike OGM for instance.

    The produce is as fresh as can be; and this includes seafood, meat, poultry, fruit and vegetables, cheese, baked goods and more. It is dearer than the supermarket for many items, yes, but I find that things keep much better due to their freshness. Curiously enough we seem to spend less at the markets and have a better stock of food products for the week. I like the fact that you can meet the grower/maker and we have made some lovely new friendships. We rarely stay long enough to have a coffee, unless we bump into friends, or arrange to meet my daughter there, for instance. Our nanna trolley is pulled along behind us as we make beelines to our favourite stalls and, time permitting, investigate new ones. The best part is getting home and unpacking it, nibbling on goodies purchased as we do so.

    Market shopping is not for everyone and not all markets are alike. I will be reading the comments on this post with great interest.

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    • Thanks for joining the discussion, Lizzy. Lots of interesting comments so far, your’s included. I will follow your link and read up on your local market. It sounds like a good one. As you point out, markets are not for everyone. Some people cannot afford them, prefer the convenience – and familiarity – of supermarkets, amongst other things. You also raise a good point about freshness, and market produce lasting longer – therefore perhaps not costing as much in the long run. I believe you have managed markets in the past – how have you seen them change over the years, i wonder? And for the better, or for the worse?

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  7. Rachel, you certainly come up with some good questions! 🙂
    We mainly shop at Flemington Markets, which are not organic, but does offer super fresh produce and amazing value for money. We find the honest, non-pretentious atmosphere there really enjoyable.
    I have been to both Orange Grove Markets and Eveleigh, but they’re really expensive, hard to park, and not something that fits into our weekly budget or lifestyle. Also, I don’t know if Eveleigh really counts as a farmers’ market, because so many of their stalls are just businesses selling cakes, bread, chocolates, cordials – there’s even a stall that sells just dog treats!
    PS. A small stallholder at Eveleigh once told me it cost her $150 a week for her stall.

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    • Thanks for dropping by Celia – and interesting to hear that some of the local markets don’t fit in with your lifestyle. It can certainly be hard to park near some of them and i always have to brace myself for what i’m going to spend … knowing that i’m not going to be able to stop myself as much of the produce looks so good. Fortunately, I don’t go to markets every week, mainly because i have so many things to cram into my weekend, but also because i like to spread my shopping dollar around. As you know, i shop at a number of the small businesses in my local area, plus i grow some veggies, and get eggs from the chooks weekly! I probably go to a market once every 4-8 weeks. It’s certainly worth shopping around to find a market that suits your individual needs and expectations.

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  8. eatdrinkandbekerry

    Brisbane has a good choice of farmers markets and food markets. Some markets are accredited and for others you can just tell. It’s up to the shopper to use their smarts when buying and ask the question of the stall holders – “Where did this come from?” .

    Some farmers love the interaction with their customers that comes from attending markets and also enjoy the value added income.

    We are lucky in Brisbane to be surrounded by some of Australia’s great food bowls with the Brisbane Valley just an hour or so away and the Sunshine Coast and Bundaberg regions also close by.

    BTW Love your question concept! Well done.

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    • Hi Kerry – you’re right about it being up to the shopper to use their smarts by questioning the stall holders. You certainly are in an enviable location. Let me know if you will be in Sydney any time soon – would love to discuss blog strategies with you (you have such good ones yourself!)

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  9. alison@thisbloominglife

    I’ve been mulling this one over since reading it earlier this morning…looking at the demographic of our local markets, it is very much the educated middle class who are the buyers and the volume of sales needs to be seen to be believed (some stalls turning over several tens of thousands of dollars each and every week).

    Having made these observations, I do think that for those genuine small scale growers/producers farmers markets are the ONLY option to generate a small income from what is essentially damn hard work. A crop or your livestock can be lost at a total whim of nature and days off are unheard of.

    For me, I shop at the little stalls, the people who I know are genuine growers. My meat comes almost solely direct from the producers. Lamb is bought whole from a local farmer who exclusively sells direct and sends email updates to keep his city customers part of the farming loop. And this is where I firmly believe that markets are worth their weight in gold. Customers become an active part of the growing process, they understand that there are several months of the year when a product is simply not available, they volunteer to undertake repair work when a flood devastates and flattens km of fencing, they visit on open days and their kids get to run free. As an example I am forwarding you an email I received yesterday which demonstrates this lovely loop…

    So, like everything there is good and bad. It’s up to us as consumers to pick and choose and go Greg – I agree with everything you said!

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    • Thanks for your comments, observations, and email (I’ll look out for it). I guess a lot of it comes down to the consumer doing their homework – and not just blindly buying from any old stall (unless of course you just don’t give a stuff!). I really like your point about some markets being worth their weight in gold in some respects – getting consumers more involved in the growing process, etc. Food for thought, my dear friend. Thanks so much for your input!

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  10. In the UK we have accredited farmers markets, but most of our local ones aren’t accredited. Most of the stallholders at our nearest ‘farmers market’ are part time hobby farmers or people cooking in their home kitchen; commercial farmers don’t take produce there because after they’ve bought all the equipment (to comply with food hygiene, labelling regs etc), transported the produce there and then manned the stall, they don’t take enough to cover their costs. I’m sure it’s different in the big cities though.

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    • Overheads seem to be a barrier for local producers to set up a market stall here in Australia, too. And that’s partly what pushes up the cost of produce that does make it to market. Shame.

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  11. We used to live about an hour from Newcastle Farmer’s Market and loved going there most Sundays. There are arts and crafts as well as farm stalls there but there’s always loads of fantastic veg and we spent a lot less as it all lasted for ages. We weren’t throwing stuff away and it was a great day out. I really liked the mix of fresh veg, meat and dairy with value added stalls and art stuff. It was always busy but parking was close and I didn’t mind paying the $2 to park in the car park as the markets themselves were free.

    About 2 years ago we moved to the Central West NSW. We’ve been to both Mudgee (1 1/2 hours drive) and Orange Farmer’s Markets (2 1/2 drive) since then. Keep meaning to get to Bathurst (1 1/2 hours drive) but we’ve not managed it.
    We were disappointed with the lack of fresh veg available at Mudgee market but I can’t remember what time of year it was. There were a fair few value added stalls but they weren’t what we had money for at the time.
    The Christmas market which included the art/craft and 2nd hand stuff as well was good.
    Orange was great but it’s a long drive and it means we have to leave very early in the morning to get there and chronic insomnia means we don’t make it very often. The apples there in Autumn are beyond compare.

    Bathurst, Mudgee and Orange Farmer’s markets are only on once a month and I can never remember what one is on what weekend and so so far we’ve not been to any of them as regularly as we used to go to the Newcastle market.

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    • It sounds like you had the luxury of a very lovely market close to hand. I applaud your determination to seek out other markets – and to travel as far as you do for them. You’d certainly never be labelled a convenience shopper would you?! Happy marketing … it sounds like it’s a pass-time you really enjoy.

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      • Em

        I’d like to be able to get there more often than we do.
        We do travel a long way to go to the markets but where we live we have to travel an hour and a half just to get to the closest Woolworths or Coles too so it’s not really any different.
        We do have a village store but you can’t get much more than UHT milk and tinned food there and it’s massively expensive.

        Living so far from town we only go shopping once a week in summer or once a fortnight in winter when the veg lasts longer. It’s important that the veg last as long as it can for us as we can’t just pick up more.

        Also my partner and I are both on disability pension so we can’t afford to be wasting food. We have a grocer in Bathurst that we buy from when we can’t get to the markets. They have a lot of local stuff (local for rural areas anyway). Often the fruit comes in pallets straight from the orchards so it’s a great resource. The stuff that is in season is pretty cheap too.

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      • Sounds like you have a great resource in your Bathurst grocer. Good look with your marketing endeavours and thanks for joining in the conversation on The Food Sage.

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  12. thesharedtable

    It is important to remember that many private farmer’s market operators are often monopolies that encourage fierce competition amongst stallholders with their high rents and threat of allowing new stallholders in selling similar products. High rents and over competition encourage stallholders to sell additional produce they don’t grow rather than reducing prices. This is not dissimilar from supermarkets putting price pressure on primary producers resulting in them cutting corners in their production processes. In South East Queensland it is not unusual to see more than five producers selling the same produce item at the same farmer’s market. Operators often turn a blind eye to the bought in produce as a full range of produce will draw more consumers, hence more rents.

    While there is clearly a role for well-managed private farmer’s markets, there is also a need for local community-based farmer’s markets where local growers can sell their produce at affordable prices to the local community. Access to affordable fresh produce needs to be recognized as a community health issue. There appears to be government failure in this regard with local councils’ primary contribution to health being through the provision of recreational facilities.

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    • Thank you so much for pointing out the importance of prices being affordable to the wider community – i thought no one would. It sticks in my throat a bit that farmers markets alienate the very groups in society that could really do with seeing, handling and being able to buy fresh produce. I’m not asking stallholders to give their produce away at unsustainable prices – and some readers have already pointed out that cost overheads of coming to market often mean that prices have to be high. But as you also point out, fierce competition and high rents that some markets encourage and charge are part of the problem. I don’t know what the answer is, but i’d like see fresh produce markets accessible by everyone in the community – not just the financially secure. I’m sure local councils turn a blind eye to the whole thing. Thanks so much for joining in the discussion.

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  13. FS, thank you again for another thought-provoking question – and intelligent responses from your readers.
    to answer your questions, the prices at the bellerive market did not appear overpriced, but i would happily pay more when the quality is so juicy-fresh, and i am putting my money directly into the hand of the lady who collected the eggs, or cut the flowers.
    i hadn’t thought of these as ‘middle class’ before, and it’s hard to wade into that territory without appearing snobby, but … i guess they are, from what i’ve seen of the people attending.
    and minority? you have to go out of your way a bit to go to a market – it’s much easier to throw your fruit and vege in the supermarket trolley as you trundle around coles or woollies – so they won’t suit everyone. but that’s nowhere near as satisfying as buying it in the fresh air and sunshine (or gale force winds as it was on saturday!) as you can at a market. i also liked not exactly knowing what i would find – what is available one week to the next.
    related to this is size: i have only just experienced my first farmers markets, and they were both very small; which suited me just fine, as i could interact more with each stallholder (who did appear to be the growers). and i could go to a big shopping centre or chain supermarket, or even salamanca markets here in hobart, if i wanted to be crushingly surrounded by crowds of people and have a wide choice of crappy commercial offerings.
    i was only dissapointed by the ubitiquous coffee van, but people expect to get coffee everywhere all the time now, don’t they, and i guess stalls like that (and the vegan food and freshly cooked corn on the cob that i saw on the weekend) keep people at markets for longer.

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    • It’s lovely of you to drop by and share your first farmers’ market experience with us. It is lovely to shop outdoors isn’t it? I often like it when it’s rained over night and you’ve got to sludge through a bit of mud .. the market i sometimes go to is often the quietest on those days, too, which isn’t a bad thing (for me, not the stall holders). I’m glad you’ve found a market where the stallholders appear to be the growers – because as you say, there’s nothing like putting the money into the hands of the person who grew, raised, or baked the goods themselves. Happy marketing!

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  14. Nan

    I’ve just come home from the markets at Castle Hill – it is a part of the Hawkesbury Harvest group of markets. I’ve noticed a disturbing trend that today made me really question whether it is worth travelling over 30 minutes to get there. I know that I am buying fresh produce, organic, all of that feel-good stuff, direct from the producer….. BUT….. I really object to being ripped off. One large free range all-things-good pork chop – guess how much it was?? $17.00!!! And five finger sized sausages – $10.00!! One butterflied chicken – $21.00. Four punnets of strawberries for $12 sounded wonderful until I realised that the punnets were only about half the height of the usual punnet size (this was not noticeable when you looked at them from the top). Yoghurt – $10 for a half filled plastic container. $15.00 for a package of herbal tea. My $11.00 container of marinated olives almost seemed like a bargain!! I don’t mind paying a reasonable price but I do object to being made to feel stupid for paying so much for so little. I came home with very few purchases today. I do like to support local farmers and not send my supermarket dollar to overseas owners, but when I feel like I am being manipulated then I think buying organic from the supermarket may be the way i have to shop, and let the dollars go where they go. Farmer’s markets used to be a feel good exercise but this one seems to be too exclusive for me. A shame.

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