Farmers’ markets / direct farm sales: introduction

“Shop the peripheries of the supermarket; stay out of the middle.” – Michael Pollan

What are farmers’ markets and direct farm sales?

Farmers’ markets and direct farm sales are ways for farmers to sell direct to local people, without having to go through an exploitative supermarket system.

You either go to a market where lots of local food producers set up stall, or you go to an individual farm, to buy directly from their shop – or maybe there’s the possibility to actually get onto the farm and pick your own. Some farms may have a café or a home delivery service, or even vending machines and honesty boxes, but whatever schemes farmers have, it’s a way to get local food inside local people via the direct route.

The produce on sale could be raw and unprocessed – fruit, veg, meat, eggs – but also baked goods, pickles, jams, sauces, cheeses, smoked foods, dried meats and fish, cooked dishes etc.

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Farmers’ markets are vibrant and colourful additions to local economies.

History

Of course, local food markets and farm sales go back almost as far as agriculture. Produce has always been bartered or swapped for some exchange medium that could then be swapped for different produce. All markets were ‘farmers’ markets’ until the advent of corporate supermarkets, and in many parts of the world today, trying to explain farmers’ markets or direct sales in terms that depict them as in some way out of the ordinary will confuse the locals, who just call them markets. The global trend is towards corporate dominance of our food supply, however, which makes the recent counter-trend towards local food and direct sales all the more important.

The first of the new wave of farmers’ markets in the UK was established in 1997 in Bath, and now there are more than 550 farmers’ markets in the UK.

There are some traders at farmers’ markets who are not farmers – like bakers, smokers, picklers, jam-makers, cheesemakers, brewers etc., but they should source their ingredients from local farmers.

The Real Farmers' Markets logo

FARMA provide certification to ensure that farmers’ markets only provide food produced locally, sold by the people who produced it.

The National Farmers’ Retail and Markets Association (FARMA) is a support organisation for direct farm sales, and they provide a certification scheme for farmers’ markets, to ensure that what you are looking at is a ‘real’ farmers’ market. Here are their ten principles of a real farmers’ market:

  • Audited: the markets are independently audited to provide customers with confidence that this is a “Real Farmers’ Market”.
  • Champion the farmers: ensure that customers get to buy directly from the people who grew and produced the products on sale.
  • Insured: all traders and markets must have suitable public, product, and employment insurance in place to protect their customers.
  • Knowledgeable: the person selling at a “Real Farmers’ Market” understands how the food has been produced from seed to plate.
  • Legal: all traders and markets must follow all relevant EU, UK and local laws and bylaws.
  • Local businesses: markets recruit stallholders from as close to the market as possible.
  • Locally sourced: ingredients sourced by a producer are found as locally as possible to the market and producer.
  • Produced by the seller: consumers can only buy items produced by the business that is also selling it.
  • Promoted: the market clearly talks to its customers about the products and farms that make this a “Real Farmers’ Market”.
  • Well managed: the market organiser and/or organisation has systems and processes in place to ensure that the above principles are enforced at all times.
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Pick-your-own produce tends to be cheaper, because you’re providing the labour; it’s fun for kids, too, and you’re absolutely sure that it’s fresh and local.

What are the benefits of farmers’ markets and direct farm sales?

Environmental

  • Seasonal, fresh, local food reduces food miles (the distance food has to be transported).
  • Little or no packaging.
  • Less refrigeration.
  • Kicks against the intensification of agriculture – helps small, mixed farms, rather than large, monoculture farms. Small mixed farms can utilise animal manure on crops, and don’t need to use pesticides, because there is a varied, rotating crop that doesn’t give pests a chance to become established. Organic means that pest predators don’t die off.
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Perfectly-shaped supermarket veg in polystyrene and plastic vs. misshapen, unpackaged veg direct from the farmer.

Social

  • Loosens the grip of the corporate sector on our food supply.
  • Increases local resilience and national food security.
  • More jobs: between 1948 and 1989, the UK agricultural labour force declined by 70%, as farms got bigger, more machinery and chemicals were used, and markets became oriented towards the national and international rather than the local.
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Shop and café selling farm produce at Abbey Home Farm, Gloucestershire.

Farmers

  • Direct sales cut out the middleman (middleperson?), so that farmers keep more of the income generated and are able to escape from exploitative supermarket contracts.
  • Less is wasted – again, because of supermarkets’ preference for perfect-looking fruit and veg.
  • Reduced costs (e.g. packaging – and no transport costs at all for farm shops or pick-your-own).
  • Opportunity to receive feedback from the public on their produce.

Consumers

  • Better food – fresh, local, seasonal.
  • Get to meet local food producers.
  • Much more pleasant and interesting experience than supermarket shopping.
  • Pick-your-own is cheap, and a nice way to spend an hour or two.
Farmers' markets stalls selling breads, preserves, cheese, beer and cakes.

Farmers’ markets are about a lot more than fruit and veg.

A word about prices. It’s unfortunate, but those who want to help create a better world are always charged more than people who don’t. Hence flying is cheaper than driving, which is cheaper than taking the train; recycled products are more expensive than non-recycled; organic is more expensive than non-organic, and so on. For the time being, it’s equivalent to a tax on doing the right thing. That can’t be right, surely?

Having said that, see here, especially ‘Research has shown that much fresh produce is actually more expensive at supermarkets. With organic food, the price difference is striking: meat and poultry was found to be on average 37% more expensive at the supermarket, and vegetables were 33% cheaper at farmers’ markets’.

Having said that, even when locally-produced, sustainable food is more expensive, it’s worth a bit extra to do the right thing, isn’t it? And you might have had the ‘organic food is too expensive’ conversation with someone with a plasma-screen TV, a satellite subscription and £150 corporate trainers. In the end, it’s a question of priorities, and what kind of world we’d like to see.

One more point – if local food is more expensive than corporate food, it will mean more money for local food producers, so more money in your local community, which will give more opportunity for people to start other local businesses, one of whom might be you. A rising tide lifts all boats.

Snapshot of the farmers’ market at St. Ives, Cambridgeshire.

What can I do?

Consumers

  • Find your local farmers’ market or direct sales outlet: there are sites with maps, where you can find your nearest local food sources. See here, here and here for example; and here is a listing, by county, of pick-your-own farms in the UK – or you could just search online for farmers’ markets, farm shops, pick-your-own and the name of your town.
  • Use them: some people might be attracted to farmers’ markets and direct sales because of the novelty value. Far better to develop relationships with local food producers and wean ourselves off supermarkets, whose policies damage farmers, the environment and ultimately, society. Local food producers need support all the time, not just for a few months.
An example of a roadside honesty stall selling fresh farm produce

Farms often sell produce via a roadside stall, sometimes unmanned, with an honesty box.

Farmers / smallholders

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Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall has highlighted the waste involved in the perfectly good food rejected by supermarkets. His approach was to get the supermarkets to change their policies, but another approach might be to avoid supermarkets altogether.

Organise a farmers’ market if you don’t have one near you

  • Don’t have a local farmers’ market? Join Farma, and they’ll help you organise one. And here’s a booklet on organising a farmers’ market. This applies to farmers or any interested local people.
  • Talk to FARMA about their farmers’ market certification, to reassure the public that the food sold is produced locally (see above).

We'd love to hear your comments, tips and advice on this topic, and if you post a query, we'll try to get a specialist in our network to answer it for you.