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Wednesday, 30 January, 2002, 14:59 GMT
Markets save farmers' bacon
Sally Page serving
Sally Page serving from her trailer at Barnes farmers' Market
BBC News Online's Sarah Toyne travelled with Sally Page to a farmers' market in south west London to find out about the benefits of bypassing supermarkets and selling directly to customers.

The horse and cart may have been replaced by a Land Rover and trailer, but "going to market" is undergoing a renaissance in the UK.

With falling farming incomes and punitive distribution networks, an increasing number of farmers have been forced to bypass wholesalers and supermarkets, selling directly to the public at better prices instead.


It makes a tremendous difference, we wouldn't be in business if it wasn't for farmers' markets

Chris Dench, Ringden Farm
The Policy Commission on the Future of Farming and Food, published this week encourages such practises.

It wants more farmers to establish co-operatives and use farmers' markets.

Farmers' markets

Sally and her husband, Graham, now supply 70% of their produce through farmers' markets at three or four markets a week.

They started two years ago and now sell all their produce direct, with the exception of a small local supermarket which has a sympathetic manager - and is willing to sell their produce.

Each Saturday morning, they take the hour and a half journey to Barnes farmers' market in south west London to sell a range of meat products, from Cajun-spiced sausages to joints of beef.

Direct Selling

The Page's say that without farmers' markets they would probably not have survived last year's foot and mouth crisis.

Market scene
Barnes' farmers' market
Although none of their animals were culled, they lost income from school visits, income from livestock markets and are now burdened with additional movement costs.

Farmers' markets began to take off about three years ago and there are now more than 200 across the UK.

Apples saved

Heidi Fermor, runs Perry Court farm in Bilting in Kent.

The farm is large, with 750 acres used to grow one hundred varieties of apples, strawberries and pears.

Soft fruit farmers have been especially hit hard in recent years.

Heidi and Sam from Perry Court Farm
Heidi and Sam from Perry Court Farm
Three years ago they started selling produce through farmers' markets and stopped selling most of their produce to supermarkets.

"Business is definitely better. We have been able to maintain our income," says Heidi.

Perry Court Farm's strawberries are still sold to supermarkets, but the "margins are so tight".

The farmers' markets has also saved 100 varieties of apples and jobs on the farm.

Lifeline

Chris Dench is another soft fruit grower.

Chris Dench
Chris Dench shows his apple juice
He doesn't supply wholesale apple markets anymore, but still sells 20% of his produce to a supermarket chain.

Chris used to supply about 30 different greengrocers in Hastings, but now supplies about five, since the others closed.

"It makes a tremendous difference, we wouldn't be in business if it wasn't for farmers' markets, " he says.

Local support

Barnes is an affluent part of London and has a "village" atmosphere, which perhaps makes the market successful.

Mike Anderson and his son, Jack
Mike Anderson and his son, Jack
Mike Robinson, accompanied by his son Jack, comes to the market every week. Mr Robinson is one of Sally Page's regular customers.

He says he is a bit fed up of supermarkets, but he said it was the quality and value of the food which was the big attraction.

Jessica Rawlinson is another regular supporter of the market.

She likes its friendly atmosphere, and likes the way it is much more personal than buying in a big supermarket.

"I only live five minutes away. It's so much more pleasant than battling around a supermarket," she says.

More expensive?

Farmers at the market say that it is a misconception that supermarkets are always cheapest.

Jessica Rawlinson
Jessica Rawlinson says the market is friendly

Heidi Fermor says: "We have been conditioned into thinking that supermarkets are cheaper, but we can offer good prices and we have quality."

One of the main proposals of the Policy Commission report on farming is to encourage supermarkets to buy from local producers.

But better pay may be needed to convince them to sell again.

One farmer who had a contract with a major supermarket said that it was initially lucrative, but each year it "upped the stakes" over the quality of produce until it became unviable.

Heidi says that as soon as they have enough outlets to sell their strawberries direct, they will stop selling to supermarkets.

Government intervention?

Farmers believe the government should do more to promote direct selling.

Journey to the market
Journey to the market
Chris Dench believes that the government should encourage people to buy at farmers' markets through a vouchers scheme, similar to that offered in the US.

The US Department of Agriculture has a major voucher scheme for low-income groups, which can be spent at farmers' markets.

Others believe that it should provide grants to help farmers buy trailers, and refrigerated units so that farmers can sell at markets.

Sandra Bell, rural food campaigner for Friends of the Earth, says that funding is needed.

"We would like to see more effort to locate them in low income areas and funding from regional development agencies going into farmers' markets and local food initiative."

Not all farmers' markets, however, are successful. One in Kensington, for example, closed at Christmas because of low take-up.

Jo Dimond-Brown of English Farmers' Markets says that while many people farmers markets attract loyal followings, buying patterns have changed, and people are used to going to supermarkets.

"But people are starting to vote with their feet," he says.

"People are coming because they want to support British farmers and are fed up that their food is travelling half way around the world," he added.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
Sally Page
"You don't really get a period when there is nobody here"
See also:

03 Jan 02 | Business
Farmers sow seeds of enterprise
29 Jan 02 | Sci/Tech
Wary welcome for farming report
29 Jan 02 | UK Politics
Farming faces major shake-up
29 Jan 02 | Sci/Tech
Farm report gets two cheers
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