Returning to the Garden

Farmers’ markets — the ‘quiet revolution’ that is resuscitating rural Australia and restoring our health and wellbeing.

They are bringing back sleepy little towns from the brink, resuscitating regional economies, giving birth to new businesses, increasing farmer profits by up to 85per cent. They are a revolutionary economic model that’s wrenching the power from the hands of multinationals into the hands of growers and the people.  
They are a place where mothers chat as they queue for bananas, grandparents haggle over glossy bunches of tomatoes, children run about with cheeks smeared with strawberry and farmers divulge growing tips as they fill your basket with freshly picked greens. They are a place for trying new foods, the true tastes of your region, and a place to be a community. They are farmers’ markets and they are changing the face of rural towns all over Australia.

Around Australia, farmers’ markets are being heralded as a ‘quiet revolution’. Whether by attracting out of town shoppers to their region, or simply providing locals with an alternative to the supermarket, farmers’ markets are making significant economic contributions to rural economies, as towns such as Wilunga in SA and Wauchope in NSW are testament.

At a time when rural Australia is undeniably in decline, thanks to persistent drought, loss of farmland to subdivision and farmers’ need to compete in an unfair globalised market that endorses supermarkets to source the ‘cheapest’ produce from around the globe, farmers’ markets are proving themselves a sustainable solution. And it seems that governments and policy makers are starting to take notice.

The growth of farmers’ markets in Australia has been exponential. In the seven years since their introduction, Australia has gone from having none to over 100. This follows a similar trend occurring in the US, which currently has over 4000 and the UK, which had not one farmers’ market ten years ago and now has over 550 of them.

A true farmers’ market, as defined by Chairperson of the Australian Farmers’ Market Association Jane Adams, is a place where ‘the vendor is the producer, the maker, the baker, the artisan, the value adder’.

It differs from a municipal market, such as the famed Queen Victoria market in Melbourne, in that all sales are a direct transaction between the producer and the consumer.
In one sense, farmers markets are nothing new. Records date back to Mespotamia and in many parts of the world they are a long-standing tradition. However, in post-industrial nations such as the US, UK and Australia, this tradition has been replaced by supermarkets which put the control and profits in the hands of a wealthy few.

The farmers’ market movement in Australia was founded by former food writer Jane Adams. She had frequented them in Europe and wondered why a country like Australia with such fantastic culinary pride and agricultural history had no farmers’ markets. She decided to do something about it. In 1997 she won an international fellowship that helped fund a trip to the US to discover the inner workings of farmers markets. After she returned in 1999 she ran community workshops across Australia, sharing what she had learned. ‘Its grown like topsy … it’s been absolutely phenomenal,’ says Adams.

Not only has the growth been exponential, the economic impact has been astonishing, making governments sit up and take notice. In 2005 the Department of Primary Industry (DPI) estimated farmers’ markets have a $40 million annual turnover, a figure Adams describes as ‘conservative’. A study conducted in 2005 for Australian Government’s Department of Rural Industries and Development Corporation found farmers’ markets also create a multiplication effect: people are more likely to spend money at other shops while in town for the market. The report concedes, ‘a farmers’ market is largely a win-win for all involved; even retailers benefit from funds being retained in the district and recycled through farmer purchases’.

Wauchope and Wilunga are both towns that have prospered since the introduction of farmers’ markets. In 2001Wauchope, just inland from Port Macquarie in NSW, was a small town devastated by the deregulation of the dairy industry. ‘There were empty shops … it was a town in decline,’ says Adams. Then the Hastings Council stepped in.

Trevor Sergeant and Liz Giles of Hastings Council’s Economic Development Division say Council introduced a farmers’ market as a strategy to revitalise Wauchope, hoping to attract non-local shoppers to the area and give jobless dairy farmers other ways to make money off their land. Some action was imperative because when farmers cease farming and sell up their land, it becomes susceptible to carving up for subdivision, leaving what Sergeant calls an ‘enormous void in the economy’ with dire social, economic and environmental consequences.

The first Wauchope farmers’ market in 2002 was a huge hit. The mayor, on his way out to open it, got stuck in a traffic jam of enthusiastic shoppers and most stalls sold out within 20 minutes. Liz Giles says Wauchope had the best day of trade in years, with cars ‘bumper to bumper from Port to Wauchope’. One menswear store reported a sales increase of 400 per cent on the day.

Sergeant believes the market has brought the town back to life and the community is appreciative. He says many shops report an increase in turnover on market day, and even the fruit and vegetable shops and nurseries that once showed animosity towards the market are now ‘quietly supportive’.

But one Wauchope farmer disagrees. Local farmer Trevor Lawrence, who also owns a fruit and vegetable store in the town, says he is not happy with the market being there even though he generally has a better day on farmers’ market day.

Lawrence worries that the market encourages ‘backyarders’ to grow cash crops which drives increased competition for local farmers. He also thinks Council should not be running the market, as it is effectively funding a rogue cash economy that hurts small businesses. He says it is unreasonable that farmers’ m arkets are not obliged to meet the same health standards as shops and can sell their produce ‘out of the backs of utes and meat out of eskies’.

Wilunga, south of Adelaide, is another town that farmers’ markets have transformed. ‘Once you could’ve shot a canon up the main street on any weekday … it is now quite a busy hub,’ says farmers’ market coordinator Vardy Hirst.

Wilunga market attracts around 1500 shoppers each Saturday, 52 per cent of whom are visitors to the area. Hirst says local and state governments were so impressed by the impact of the market, which generated an estimated $2 million in the 2004–2005 financial year and launched ten new businesses, that they pledged money for a new town square.

So are Wauchope and Wilunga typical examples of how farmers’ markets impact rural towns? In the major tourist destination Byron Bay, the economic impact has been marked but less dramatic. Farmers are certainly doing better, all those who started out as sole traders must now hire help on market day, proving the market has created new jobs. The market has also seeded and incubated new businesses and business relationships. But in terms of attracting shoppers from out of town, there was no need … they were already there.

What the market has done for Byron Bay is help unite the community. Originally some retailers and the monthly community markets fought to stop the market, fearing damaging competition. Four years later, local fruit and vegetable shop owners concede that while the farmers’ market does take away their business they still support it.

Joni Teal, Byron Bay and Bangalow’s farmers’ market coordinator says, ‘We don’t compete, we co-pete — farmers can only bring seasonal produce to the market but the fruit shops can have their produce all year round.’ She adds, ‘It’s been really great that a few of the farmers are [as a result] hooked up with some of the fruit shops. I really think in a way the shops are the winner of farmers’ markets.’

One such hook-up happens down at Ed Ahern’s Green Garage each Thursday when farmers drop off what they haven’t sold at market.

Ahern owns two food stores in Byron that supply fresh produce — Green Garage and Byron Bay Handi-Mart — and is also President of Byron’s Chamber of Commerce. He admits these two roles can be in conflict because while most of Byron’s shops benefit from any extra shoppers the market might attract, anyone who sells produce ‘would suffer’.
‘I have noticed a difference … we have a terrible Thursday. It has a negative impact on my business … but it’s not always about me,’ admits Ahern.

Similarly, Brenda Louish of Readings Fruit Barn, in the neighbouring town of Bangalow, says while weekends are her quietest days, she still likes the farmers’ market being there.
‘I personally think we should all work together,’ says Louish. ‘It’s better for me to have [farmers’] products so customers can access it seven days a week.’

The Byron farmers’ market has also helped make local farmers’ businesses more viable. Meryl Ellaby, who sells her own locally grown and processed olive products at the market, thinks the market has had a positive economic impact on the farming community.
‘It helps me … I must admit it really helps the farmers. Before, they were really struggling to make a quid. They are more affluent now, every one of them can afford to employ one or two more employees than they had before.’

Northern NSW banana grower Lance Powell enjoys the fact that since he began at the farmers’ markets he has retained the profits he once lost to the expensive packaging and freight that is part of the wholesaling process.

For the Trevor-Jones, a fifth generation Byron Bay farming family, the market has been a godsend, saving what was a languishing family farm. The farm was barely supporting one family before the farmers’ market and now supports two. Hugh Trevor-Jones says selling wholesale would not be worth his while but selling to market means they can make a living because we can ask retail prices.

Trevor-Jones agrees with the Hastings Council that farmers’ markets have a role to play in preserving farmland by helping small farms become commercially viable again. He says this mitigates the trend of farms being chopped up and sold off to ‘lifestylers’ which began in the 70s and has rendered much farmland totally unproductive.

For a country whose GNP is so reliant on agriculture, letting rural Australian economies collapse is not an option. A movement doing so much to resuscitate rural economies is too important for government to ignore. So what is the future for farmers’ markets?

‘I think I am now confident to say [farmers’ markets] are here to stay,’ says Jane Adams. ‘There will be a second wave as government begins to understand the power of the economic benefits.’ Adams believes this interest from government will translate into more research into the economic, social and agricultural impacts and funding to educate and encourage farmers to participate in farmers’ markets, which is necessary because currently consumer demand outstrips supply.

Adams says one indication of the future growth of farmers’ markets is demonstrated by the fact that property developers are now planning purpose built farmers’ markets in retail spaces, with ‘a couple on the drawing board’ in Sydney and Queensland.

With purpose built farmers’ markets being built into retail spaces, and 100-fold increase in seven years, could the future of fresh-food shopping in Australia be here?

Published in Kindred, Issue 21, March 07

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