I first discovered farmers markets on a six-week research trip to the USA in 1993. Shocked by the poor quality of food available in US cities, I started the search for an edible piece of fruit. There are few greengrocers in the USA, and supermarket produce does not measure up to Australian expectations. Stone-fruit purchased in these supermarkets went from unripe to rotten overnight, somehow bypassing the edible phase in between, or alternatively stayed hard and failed to ripen at all. Any produce I could get to ripen was still hard and tasteless. Within a few weeks I had given up buying fresh produce in these stores. I learnt that quality produce was easier to find by driving to the edge of town, to farm stalls, or by locating the local farmers market.
Most towns had a farmers market somewhere, often in a high profile square, car park, in closed off streets or on the village common. A road may be closed for a Tuesday or Thursday evening, or for a few hours on Saturday, and the precinct would come alive with smells, colour and the sound and sight of shoppers.
The character of the markets changed subtly around the country. California and Arizona had bright red displays of tomatoes, capsicum and chillies. Massachusetts had piles of green vegetables, sold direct from the farm pickup. The rules are simple. Only farmers can display or sell. There are generally no middlemen or agents. In some towns local art and craft would be on display also, but this was less frequently seen than a park-or-street full of farmers trucks with trestle displays of farm fresh produce. In some towns farmers were permitted to bring produce from other farms.
Samples are offered and bargains struck for volume purchases. There is always lots of peering over, questioning, haggling and jovial banter. "Are these sprayed" or "is your produce organic" is a common inquiry. Organic and conventional produce is represented. Sometimes one type will dominate, or the other. In the USA, there are various other categories of 'unsprayed', 'minimum chemical' or 'integrated management' produce which are found in these markets also. Generally it is the smaller farmers that attend these markets. They are an important form of marketing in a country that has many different market models. There are also a wide range of interpretations of community -supported farms, subscription farms, farm gate sales, barrow sales, farm shops, home deliveries and food co-operatives.
The farmers markets do have some farm-processed foods for sale. Jams, sauces and dried produce are often seen. Presentation is important, as shoppers are very selective. Braided garlic, carefully arranged displays and free samples really help to move the produce. I tasted almonds flavoured with garlic, coffee, orange and chillies, mouth watering home made berry ice-cream, biodynamic bread and dehydrated buffalo steaks. Flowers were a feature of every market, sometimes in stalls with only flowers, but generally a few were grown on all small crop farms, and stalls with potted plants or seedlings were almost universal.
The craft fairs and local markets with which we are familiar in Australia reproduce some of the atmosphere of the farmers markets and would be a model for farmers who would like to develop this idea. Some markets already accept produce. The concept of a farmers market is best in an area with a number of small producers and a large population. The Northern Rivers area, the Sunshine Coast, southern Victoria and adjacent to each capital are examples of suitable areas. If organic growers choose to establish these markets they could decide to admit only organic produce or could allow any primary producer to sell their own produce. Eumundi, in southern Queensland, was the first Australian market I visited, a few years later. Although it has the full range of market stalls, it was the fresh farm produce and hone-baked ready-to-eat food that shoppers clamoured for. Since this time, farmers markets have gradually extended their influence across the country.
If the market is successful, most stallholders will drive home almost empty-handed. They are an important cash market for small producers who cannot provide volume produce to wholesalers for an economic return. They also provide a great opportunity to talk to customers, explaining why there are seasonal variations and shortages, or providing recipes and cooking instructions for unusual produce like celeriac, or mizuna or Jerusalem artichoke. If done well, farmers markets will benefit quality growers by providing a willing and appreciative clientele, who will pay a good price. The grower can achieve better than wholesale price, while giving a better than retail price for very fresh produce. Initially there can be some intense haggling, but this often settles down into regular relationships between suppliers and consumers, and a convenient ‘one stop’ market for a small grower to quit their produce. There are no middlemen, which preserves margins for the growers. More critically, produce is looked after by the person who cares most and has most to gain from maximum freshness, that is the grower.
Growing for farmers markets is not for everybody. You generally need a wide variety of produce, which means investment of time and intellectual resources into successional planting, unique varieties and growing techniques (to extend the seasons), and the character traits necessary to present your produce well and to participate in the chatty, happy, festival atmosphere of the market. Growers may need to research and become knowledgeable about a wider range of crops than they normally would, if supplying wholesalers.