Farmers’ markets: time for a rethink?

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By Cate Devine – published in Herald Scotland here.

The chef in question has recently returned from Copenhagen, and he reckoned Scottish markets didn’t offer the fresh produce stocked by their equivalents everywhere else. That sentiment was echoed by Pete Jackson of Earthy Foods in Edinburgh, whose seven-day covered market at the Tron Church is Scotland’s first. He told me he couldn’t understand why Scotland, with its fantastic fresh produce, could not do as they do in Barcelona, Croatia and Ibiza: have seven-day markets selling produce straight out of the ground.

Earlier Carlo Petrini, the founder of the international slow food movement which campaigns for fair and equal access to sustainably produced local food, said something similar. When he was in Scotland last week, I asked him if farmers’ markets were failing to reach the very people who need them most. He agreed, calling for more markets in poorer areas.

In the 1990s he opened Chicago and New Orleans farmers’ markets and within months there were 100 in the US, all selling organic food attractive only to what he described as the “elite” of society. Now there are 12,000 markets across the US, and they are in the poorest areas like the Bronx and Harlem.

Selling fresh produce direct from the farm is the obvious way to sidestep the global mass distribution of industrially produced food. Buying from farmers and producers helps them stay in business, encourages healthy eating and boosts the economy: every £1 spent with a local supplier is worth £1.76 to the local economy, and only 36 pence if it is spent out of the area.

This is all very well, but farmers’ markets are not exactly the cheapest places to buy food and they’re concentrated in the most affluent areas. When I’ve enquired about this before I’ve been told the reason is good old market forces: farmers will sell in the places they know will fetch the highest price. Why should they go to deprived areas like, say, Shettleston, a low-income area of Glasgow’s East End, when they’re unlikely to get anyone to pay a penny over rock-bottom supermarket prices? Although Shettleston’s notoriously short life span has improved it’s still very low. Residents of Maryhill and Springburn, in the north of the city, have the lowest life expectancy in Scotland at 69 and 76 respectively, partly due to poverty and poor diet.

There’s unarguably a need for access to fresh local food, but if farmers’ markets were to open in these areas, their prices would have to come way down – a scenario only possible with either goodwill (unlikely) or subsidy. From whom? Local authorities? Government?

There is the argument that prices at farmers’ markets are the true cost of food, and that customers’ attitudes have been skewed by the ridiculously unrealistic prices set by supermarkets. It’s going to take a while before the two are reconciled. I was very interested to hear Denise Walton of Peelham Farm in Berwickshire say that after 15 years of selling her organic meat and charcuterie at farmers’ markets, she has noticed a change in the customers: even if they can’t afford to buy, they are seeking advice for food-related illnesses and allergies. “Mainstream food is hurting people,” she claimed.

Scottish Association Farmers’ Markets take place in 43 villages, towns and cities, but they’re either fortnightly or monthly. This isn’t regular enough to change the existing culture.

Fears that there isn’t enough local produce to justify weekly or even daily markets is easily refuted: I bet customers would flock to a market that sold only local potatoes and milk/cheese, the two sectors most in need of support.

Now people are doing it for themselves. Of 30 community-owned shops in Scotland, the newest urban one is Dig-In Bruntsfield Community Greengrocer in Edinburgh, which sells only locally-sourced produce. It was launched by people dismayed that their neighbourhood deli, Peckham’s, had been bought out by a branch of a large supermarket chain.

In the West, the Glasgow Locavore social enterprise shop sells and distributes locally grown vegetables from a 2.5 acre market garden in Neilston, on the outskirts of the city. It was established last year specifically because of the lack of vegetable growers in the Glasgow area. Its vegetable bag delivery scheme has 185 customers and growing. They will treble the growing space this year due to demand from a diverse customer base from Glasgow’s Govanhill, Tollcross, Dennistoun; and Paisley, Elderslie and East Kilbride.

The Shettleston Community Growing Project is also impressive. Its reclaimed wasteland site has 50 raised beds, a communal fruit bed, seven hot houses, and an area for workshops and open days for Housing Association residents and two primary schools have growing spaces.

It proves two things: there’s demand for local food, and there is more than one way to market.

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