Focus: Farmers fighting to keep their markets open

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The Independent Online
The foot-and-mouth epidemic has stopped in its tracks Britain's fastest-growing retail success story: farmers' markets. At one stage, more than 270 of the country's 300-plus markets were shut, in line with the initial government advice. That has been reversed, as part of the "Britain is open for business" policy, but farmers' markets are only slowly reopening and many do not plan to unpack their stalls again until the summer

The foot-and-mouth epidemic has stopped in its tracks Britain's fastest-growing retail success story: farmers' markets. At one stage, more than 270 of the country's 300-plus markets were shut, in line with the initial government advice. That has been reversed, as part of the "Britain is open for business" policy, but farmers' markets are only slowly reopening and many do not plan to unpack their stalls again until the summer.

"It's static," says Jenny Hey of the National Association of Farmers' Markets (NAFM). "No one knows what to do, because no one wants the finger of blame pointed at them. Our advice is, 'Open if you can, but don't spread disease'."

This has been a blow to the vigorous revival of farmers bringing their produce to market. The first of the modern farmers' markets opened in Bath less than four years ago, driven by the local authority and "envolve", a pressure group which works with schools, community groups, youth groups, businesses and individuals to raise awareness of environmental issues. By the end of 1999, there were 40 markets round the country, rising to 300 by last Christmas, as consumers took to the notion of fresh food being sold by the producers, a key principle of farmers' markets. So successful has the formula been that so-called "rogue" farmers' markets have sprung up, stealing the concept but giving space to any trader willing to pay the rent.

Total sales of the genuine versions were £65m last year, and there were hopes of hitting £100m for 2001. About a third of the stalls, but half the sales by value, are meat and dairy. Most of the rest is fruit and vegetables, but the stalls can feature garlic, honey, wine, fruit juice, and there is at least one professional diver selling scallops, mussels, crab and lobster. Some markets are predominantly meat and dairy, others are mainly fruit and vegetables. Some are run by councils keen to meet the Rio indicators on sustainable growth, others by producers' cooperatives and yet more simply by enthusiastic volunteers.

And there is Nina Planck. The Virginian farmer's daughter came to Islington, north London, in 1996 to work for Time magazine and write speeches for the US ambassador. But she was struck by the lack of farmers' markets. That is not surprising. Her parents, former academics Chip and Susan, have a 45-acre farm supplying 17 markets around Washington DC.

"I heard £12,000 was being spent on four pilot markets in Bath," she says. "With my experience from the US, I thought there was no reason to spend as much as that. The figure stuck in my head, and that's what got me started. I thought the potential demand was massive in cities and could support a weekly market from the beginning, and they could be close to each other."

In other words, and this has caused a certain pursing of lips and furrowing of brows among her peers, from the outset Ms Planck has approached the management of farmers' markets as a business. She and her boyfriend, Stephen Hargrave, a former financial journalist, quickly formed a limited company, London Farmers' Markets, with £20,000. They intend to be in profit within a couple of years, foot-and-mouth or no foot-and-mouth.

"We have not closed because we saw no reason to," says Ms Planck, a director of the NAFM. "Some of our farmers have been terribly affected and while we support the restrictions we don't believe our producers pose a risk of spreading the disease. We insist that those from affected areas disinfect themselves before they leave their farms and again at the markets, and we recommend that they disinfect again when they return home."

This brisk approach has produced and maintained a chain of markets stretching around London from Islington to Notting Hill, Swiss Cottage, Wimbledon Park, Palmers Green, Blackheath, Peckham and Windsor, with Uxbridge, Marylebone and Ealing to come soon.

They work by a strict set of rules. All the 90 supplying farms are visited by the market management. The stalls must be run by the farmers or a member of their family or staff, on the grounds that it is unfair competition to put a farmer next to a trader who goes to New Covent Garden market, and it's confusing for the customer. But the phone soon rings on the farm if someone on a stall does not know about their produce, and there is a £50 fine for not showing up. "This is not a drinks party," they are warned.

No inedibles are sold at the London markets, and no clowns or jugglers are laid on to amuse the punters. Opening hours are short, usually four hours across the lunchtime period, so the farmers can get home again. "Most of the trading is in the first hour or two," says Ms Planck.

Tenants pay a daily fee related to bands of daily turnover. They pay £30 for sales up to £200, and £47 from £200 to £600, which is the rent most pay. "It's an honours system," says Ms Planck. "It's a cash business and they have to be honest about their sales. The managers get to know the stallholders, and the banding means there is a big incentive to expand before you have to pay more, so when you cross the next threshold you can afford the higher rent. Returns are greater on the dearer, well-managed markets."

But Ms Planck has had to remind stallholders not to "forget" any sales. One notice states: "If you are selling anything as a direct result of being at the market, for example supplying a cafe or delivering heavy items to nearby houses, these sales should be included in your day's takings."

Her role is to look for sites and approach site-holders such as schools and churches, businesses and local authorities. They strike a deal based on shared costs, then she contacts the farmers and is responsible for publicising and managing the markets. "We are just beginning to benefit from economies of scale," she says. "I want to open commuter markets near railway stations, because weekday markets do half as well as weekend ones."

But nationwide the movement's most puzzling allies are the supermarkets, whose large-scale buying and encouragement of intensive farming methods have been an anathema to the small producers benefiting most from the new markets. Sainsbury, Tesco and Asda have even given farmers' markets space in their car parks. A spokes-man for Tesco says: "We see them as complementary, rather than competing, and it give us another opportunity to support the British farming industry. We are great believers in customer choice, and customers can choose whether to shop at the market, come inside to buy from us ­ or do both."

So the supermarkets have embraced farmers' markets as traffic builders, and consumers apparently see no contradiction between buying beef or chicken inside the store and then picking up a pound of tomatoes from a farmer at the market on their way to the car.

Jenny Hey says: "Supermarkets produce a mixed reaction on the NAFM. The consensus is that we don't endorse them but we welcome them making space available. It is difficult to see their motivation, but one of the good things about farmers' markets is that they do help to increase the income of local shops."

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