Stephen Jardine: Farmers’ markets must grow value

Stephen Jardine. Picture: Jane Barlow
Stephen Jardine. Picture: Jane Barlow
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If you want to experience Scotland’s food revolution up close, look no further than your local farmers’ market. Especially on a Saturday, it won’t be hard to find. Across the country, 75 farmers’ markets are now operating, selling food directly from the producer to the consumer. They are a remarkable success story and a great example of how far we have come.

Fifteen years ago the phenomenon didn’t exist here, then Perthshire farmer Jim Fairlie went on holiday to France and saw them in action there. He decided, if they could work across the Channel, they could work here, and Perth Farmers’ market was born. The network now stretches from Hawick to Stornoway, selling everything from meat and fish to vegetables, jam and home baking.

Last week, representatives from farmers’ markets around the country gathered for a special conference at the end of a three-year programme to develop and grow the movement in Scotland.

Behind the first few markets was a need for food producers to be able to talk directly to customers. After food scares about everything from eggs to beef, farmers wanted to offer explanations and reassurance. They also wanted to shift the local food they were producing at a time when supermarkets weren’t interested.

A decade on, the success of farmers’ markets has forced the supermarkets to adapt and all the big names now compete to try to be seen as the most committed to local produce.

The final proof of success came when Heinz recently launched a range of farmers’ market tinned soups. That shows farmers’ markets are now a brand with retail clout.

But with a brand come guidelines and responsibilities and the big question now facing Scotland’s farmers’ markets is where do they go from here? The movement blossomed in the warmth of public trust and goodwill but how far is that stretched when some markets now sell knitting and wine?

The Scottish Government is looking at the issue and piloting a scheme to help define what a farmers’ market is and who can attend. But more of a problem is how farmers’ markets engage with all shoppers and not just the concerned middle classes.

Price is a factor but at a farmers’ market last weekend I bought eggs, carrots and cheese for less than the price in my local supermarket. So the bottom line is fine but what’s needed is added value. Sascha Grierson is one of the stars of the movement and believes business development if the key.

The supermarkets offer lessons in retail and marketing success. Loyalty cards, discount offers and locations with free parking have made them hugely successful. Farmers’ markets may need to look at these incentives if they are to grow their success in the years ahead.