Farmers' Markets: Facing their biggest challenge

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AMID the throng weaving between stalls a student nursing a hangover makes a beeline for the organic hog roast burgers while an old lady dragging a trolley crammed with freshly-picked vegetables eyes up the Scottish strawberries.

• Shoppers at the stalls of the Farmers' Market in Edinburgh

Shoppers of all ages are among the crowds that descend on the bustling Edinburgh Farmers' Market every Saturday morning but each has one trait in common: a love of good food.

The scene mirrors that at many of the other 80 farmers' markets that have sprung up across Scotland in locations from Shetland to Wigtown since the first opened in Perth just over ten years ago. The markets have become a favourite haunt for members of the public searching for a new way to shop. They want to be able to depend on finding fresh, locally grown foods, and often value being able to talk to the traders who grew or farmed the produce.

Many are also tempted by the array of items - from venison haggis to organic chicken livers - not available in supermarkets.

The farmers' markets are also a lifeline to their hundreds of stall holders. Many rely on them to keep their small food businesses going and others have seen their brands take off after gaining recognition from their regular weekly or monthly slot.

Today Edinburgh Farmers' Market celebrates its 10th anniversary and about 6,000 shoppers are expected to take part in festivities from food demonstrations to face painting and live music.

However, even though the number of farmers' markets has rocketed since the first opened in Perth in April 1999, not all is rosy. Traders are concerned about the future. Looming like a black cloud are the supermarkets, and some stallholders say it is just impossible to compete.

Amid the recession some warn they have noticed a slump in sales at farmers' markets as supermarkets increasingly tap into the public's demand for locally-grown produce.

Sascha Grierson, chair of the traders' co-operative at Edinburgh Farmers' Market, is clear that it has something unique to offer. "The setting for the Edinburgh market is outstanding," she says. "We are at the foot of the castle, one of the most iconic sites in international tourism. We have this amazingly loyal customer base. They get on their bikes. They are very committed to the ideal of low food miles."

Customers vary from the "old-fashioned type" who likes "looking you in the eye and having a chat about what type of meat is best for braising" to those who come for the "fast food" such as the hog roasts and organic burgers. And Ms Grierson, who owns Hugh Grierson Organic and has had a free-range organic chicken stall at the market since 2006, believes the markets have a crucial role to play. "I think farmers' markets are bridging a gap across two generations. I was fortunate enough to grow up with a mother and grandmother who both cooked from scratch on a daily basis. I think there's a generation of 20 to 25-year-olds who don't know how to cook and are almost afraid of food.

"Farmers' markets can be very important. If you get them in to buy a burger and lure them to your stall, then you have got a chance to teach them a little bit about food."

However, she believes more needs to be done by the markets to promote themselves and attract customers, or they will flounder in the face of competition and the convenience of supermarkets. "Car parking is a really big issue at Edinburgh Farmers' Market," she says. "Nobody has to pay to shop at supermarkets.

"Although you do have those people who cycle, a lot of people want to nip in their car for half an hour to get something as a treat for Saturday night. You don't have the parking issue at Waitrose, and let's be open about it, Waitrose is who we are competing with." She thinks more needs to be done by Essential Edinburgh, which runs the farmers' market, and the city council. She wants signs promoting the market, special deals at the local car park for market shoppers, and more effort to entice new visitors. "We are seeing a recessionary effect, but in recessions you have to respond," she says.

In April 2008 when parking charges went up in the centre of the city, she says her takings dropped by about a quarter and have not recovered. "I probably arrived at the market when it was at its peak (in 2006] and since then we have had a steady decline. We do have long-term concerns about its viability". Some of the original traders have stopped coming, she says, put off by the 85-a-day charge to hire a site when the returns are not high enough.

Tony Stone, owner of Stoats Porridge Bars, has a stall at Edinburgh and Glasgow farmers' markets, where he serves fresh, organic porridge, as well as bars, oat cakes and more. He believes the farmers' markets were the key to his business becoming a success. Having started out with a friend in 2005, his products are now sold by about 700 retailers across the UK, but still about 10 per cent of his business comes from the Edinburgh Farmers' Market alone.

"It all started by doing the farmers' market. It was the first step on the ladder and without it we wouldn't be where we are today. Now we do sell a lot through retailers but we still never miss a farmers' market. It's our core market."

He agrees that the common denominator between visitors to the market is that they are "into food". "That goes from first-year university students who want to come and get some hog roast and are looking a bit worse for wear on a Saturday morning. Then you have the retired lady who comes down with her trolley on wheels and you will have a chat about the parking situation in Marchmont. The core theme is that everybody is into food".

H

owever, he also fears for the future. Despite the current drive by celebrities and government to encourage people to eat local food, he is not convinced it is translating into more visitors to farmers' markets. "People like to think of themselves as being into food and eating local but whether that has impacted on spend I don't know. And the supermarkets are starting to cater for it as well, with Scottish sections and that sort of thing."

He also acknowledges that farmers' markets have an image of being expensive, although he does not think it is justified. "People think it's a rip-off but I have to disagree. Yes you can spend 20 on a fillet steak but it's pretty much the best you can buy in Scotland, and there are cheaper cuts available as well. The veg has been picked that morning. It is good value. I think there's a perception that it's expensive but in reality it's probably cheaper to eat at the farmers' market than from the supermarket. You also don't get pushed to buy all those two-for-one offers."

Dr John Fletcher, owner of Seriously Good Venison from Fletchers of Auchtermuchty, sells venison, haggis, neeps and tatties, pies and steaks at Edinburgh, Perth and St Andrews farmers' markets, and he is clear that he offers a service that cannot be rivalled by supermarkets. "People like to be able to talk to the producer and since I'm a deer farmer and a vet I can talk about how the animals are reared and that sort of thing. The customers are people who are interested in food and care about what they are eating and care about the environment."

He finds his venison heart, tongue and sweetbreads appeal to the student market, who are after cheaper cuts. Then his venison potted hough is popular with older customers reminded of the dishes they ate during their childhoods. "I enjoy selling my venison haggis and my pies at the farmers' markets. I find it hugely satisfying. People come up and talk to you and become very good friends."

His cuts are cheaper than those in supermarkets, he says, and he is unapologetic that it can cost up to 10 for two topside venison steaks. "We may well be fighting a losing battle here but if people want better quality then they have to pay for it."

He estimates about seven out of ten of his customers are repeat visitors. However, like the other traders, he does not think visitor numbers or the quantities of traders has risen over recent years. "Other farmers' markets have started up in places easy to park and I think they have won custom from us," he says. And he worries about what the future might hold. He is so dependent on the revenue from farmers' markets, which bring in about 50 per cent of his profits, that he believes his business could not survive without them. "We are vulnerable if the farmers' markets were to collapse," he says. "I think the novelty has worn off a bit, and there's a trend of decline, but I think that can partly be explained by the fact that there are more of them."

However, earlier this year the Scottish Government threw its support behind farmers' markets, providing them with funding for the first time.

They were given a 250,000 cash injection through a strategy that saw a newly created Scottish Farmers' Market Partnership established.

Cabinet secretary for rural affairs Richard Lochhead praised farmers' markets for being the vanguard of bringing local produce to local people. "The popularity of farmers' markets has exploded recently, empowering farmers and giving them direct access to their customers," he said. "They have the potential to become the focal point for Scottish produce, and ensuring we maximise what they have to offer is a priority for the Scottish Government."

And a spokesman for Essential Edinburgh, which runs Edinburgh Farmers' Market, insists visitor numbers have remained steady over recent years, at about 6,000 people each Saturday. This year, he says, it is too early to tell but there may have been a slight drop, with the Saturday market attracting between 4,000 and 7,000 people on average.

Until May 2005 Edinburgh Farmers Market operated twice monthly but since then has opened every week, and now has 66 stalls. It generates more than 1 million annually.

Tom Campbell, chief executive of Essential Edinburgh, says: "The market is a terrific success, attracting thousands of visitors every Saturday and generating a seven- figure annual spend at the market, and significantly boosting footfall and sales in businesses nearby. In addition, it provides people in Edinburgh with access to freshest, homegrown produce from across the country."