My market research bears fruit (and veg)

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The Independent Online

One of Sue Lawley's guests on Desert Island Discs, some time ago, was a woman who was passionately in favour of organic and free-range food, as opposed to the pesticide-ridden stuff that most of us eat, and Sue Lawley said to her that it was all very well promoting that kind of food, but being so much more expensive than the ordinary stuff, surely it was out of reach of most people's pockets, was it not?

This suggests to me very strongly that Sue Lawley had never been to a farmer's market.

Every time I go to a farmer's market, the first thing that hits me is that everything on sale is cheaper than the equivalent in a supermarket. I don't go to these markets because they're picturesque and olde worldy. I go because it makes economic sense. Here in the Wiltshire/Somerset area you can find a farmer's market several times a week if you look around, and my wife and I do look around, because the stuff you get in a farmer's market is better and cheaper. And fresher. And you're actually talking to the people who produced and packaged the stuff, which is rarely the case at Sainsbury's. And the question I'd like someone to answer is this: "How is it that supermarkets, with their superior purchasing power, bulk buying, fleets of transport and countrywide distribution, can't begin to compete with a farmer's market for price and quality?"

My wife and I went to Frome this last Saturday. It has a farmer's market once a month in the old Cheese and Grain Hall, and we like the Frome one best of all the local markets, better even than the weekly Bath market in the ancient Green Park Station with its great, curved glass roof. After we had done our shopping at the farmer's market, we went on to Sainsbury's in Frome to get a few things that farmers can't be bothered to grow (light bulbs, lavatory paper, toothpaste etc) and while I was there I made a note of some of the prices.

Sainsbury's was selling medium eggs for 75p a half dozen, £1.39 a dozen. At the farmer's market, they were about or even under £1 a dozen.

Sainsbury's was selling free range chickens for a minimum of £9 each. At the farmer's market, they were averaging about £6.

I won't bore you with more from the list, but whenever there was a comparison, the farmers were charging about two-thirds what Sainsbury's was charging. One more example. We bought a sack of potatoes from Springleaze Farm for £5, from a choice of half-a-dozen varieties. It weighed 25 kilos, and it's going to last weeks. That's 20p a kilo. I didn't check the price of potatoes in Sainsbury's because my wife sweeps through the vegetable section without stopping (she hasn't bought meat or veg from a supermarket for several years now), but I don't think you can get supermarket spuds for 20p a kilo, am I right, ladies?

There's a bloke called Keith at the local farmer's markets who sells nothing but apple juice. But he has 20 or 30 different kinds of apple juice. All named varieties. The bottles stand in a big row on his stall, sweetest one end, dryest the other end. Great names you've never heard of - Severn Bank, Lord Derby, Charles Ross, Red Devil. Now, I've seen bottles of freshly squeezed apple juice for sale here and there, even in London, but they've all been ticthy little bottles costing the earth, and these are big bottles, £2 each.

Stalls come and go. I haven't seen the boar farm stall for ages, which is a pity, because its sausages were the best. Haven't seen the Dorset Vinney blue cheese stall for a while. But the goose farmer was back again at the weekend, after a long absence. When he returns it means Christmas is looming and he's taking orders again. I think my wife is going to get one again this year, but this week she made do with a big box of pure goose fat and a chat about the economics of goose farming.

Jack and Ollie's Crisps is another comparatively new stall. Big, juicy crisps from their own spuds. Pesto crisps. Sun-dried tomato crisps. Home-made salsa with cummin. Try some. Delicious.

"I took my crisps to a new farmer's market the other day," the stall-holder told us. "Axbridge. Amazing view down into the gorge. Best view of any market I know. But business was slow. People who live round that way all commute into Bristol, apparently, and on Saturdays they're knackered, so they sleep in till 12. Well, we're just starting to pack up and go home by then, aren't we?"

Yes, it's educational at farmer's markets as well.

(More of this tomorrow, unless Sainsbury's pays my blackmail demands.)