About Me
I'm a Melbourne boy, hailing from St Kilda with one ex, one current wife and four kids. Love the outdoors and making new discoveries. I cook a lot at home (cheers from wife) and do some preserving, mostly jams, pickles and fruit liqueurs. This is the diary of a cooking journey.

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Monday, March 05, 2007
Value Or Villany?
What exactly is a farmer’s market?

It would seem I’m not the only one asking this question; Ed from Tomato is also seeking some answers. The short answer would be a market that seeks to put the farmer or producer in touch with a local community, where the farmer gets feedback directly from the consumer, unfiltered by middlemen (read supermarkets) pushing their own agenda and where the consumer can find out more about the offered goods and chat to the producer in a friendly and informal manner. A farmer’s market should also provide the highest quality produce and some items that are not mainstream, so that the public is stimulated by different ingredients not carried in supermarkets or regular grocery stores.

Another feature of these markets ought to be cheaper prices, it was this idea that came under strong challenge on the weekend at the St Kilda Farmer’s market. I went along to get some sorrel for some soup, but unfortunately the regular herb supplier wasn’t there. Thinking that maybe someone else might carry it, I did a reconnoitre of the stalls and was shocked at some of the prices being asked. The man selling oysters was offering unshucked for $15 a dozen and $18 shucked, there didn’t seem to be much business for him, completely understandable when a short drive up the road, fishmongers at Prahran Market were offering shucked Sydney rock oysters at $13 a dozen.

How does this oyster farmer defend asking more for his produce than the market that is not just renowned for the quality of produce but is considered the most expensive market going, servicing as it does the most exclusive and affluent suburbs of Melbourne? The oysterman had just a refrigerated van and trestle table, hardly horrendous overheads but sadly his produce was a snip compared to the price of organic apples on sale at a different stall.

We regularly buy apples from an orchard that is as close as spitting to organic and we pay between $1.50 and $1.75 a kilo depending on variety, at one stall, organic apples were selling for $6 a kilo, more than three times what we pay. That is an absolutely scandalous price even given their organic status. How can they possibly justify it?

I think I know.

When people get a taste of apples from an orchard and not the supermarket the difference in flavour and texture is immediately apparent, the difference between straight from the orchard and organic is not so discernible. When people get a taste of organic apples for the first time, they think that the organic factor is responsible for the superior taste and the people selling organic apples like you to think just that when in fact it’s just the fruit has been picked riper than supermarkets prefer, looking as they do for shelf life.

What has got me hopping mad about this is that it affects the stall holders who are living up to the ideal of what a farmer’s market should be, the ones who are bringing in hard to get herbs like sorrel or black kale, or the stall holder who is selling milk, not just any milk but bath milk. This is unpasteurised milk sold not for drinking but cosmetic purposes - they can’t tell you that it can be drunk, I can’t tell you that either, but I accidentally swallowed some and it was the richest, creamiest milk I have ever tasted.

Compare that to the stall selling a goat’s cheese that I can buy at any good cheese shop for the same price as the market. Why would I bother to buy here, when at the cheese shop there is the full range of cheeses? I understand that their cheeses can’t be too deeply discounted, as the cheese shops would eventually find out that they were being undercut and stop stocking them, but even if it was just a dollar or two cheaper it would make all the difference and could be justified to the cheese shops as marketing the brand.

Another stall that had me shaking my head was Sunny Ridge Strawberry Farm. This is a multi-million dollar business that is the major strawberry supplier to Coles Supermarkets. Their annual production is in excess of three million punnets of strawberries and over two hundred thousand people visit the farm every year. I can tell you from experience that their retail shop on the Mornington Peninsula has some of the highest priced products that you will ever see. One such was a packet of chocolate mousse preparation. Now I'm a home cook and it shocked me that I could have produced the same quantity as this packet using the finest quality chocolate such as Valronha for half the cost.

The feeling I was getting is that some vendors see these farmer’s markets as cash cows and are milking them for all they can get. The public will wise up in time and attendances will fall, making it harder for everyone. I love the farmer’s markets for the different things available, for the little discoveries such as unpasteurised milk or the stall selling single variety beef or another selling venison, for the small guys having a go or just getting their message out.

What I don’t love is the feeling I’m being touched.

Edited to add: Ed is running a poll on farmer's markets, you can vote right here.


  posted at 7:59 am

At 10:38 am, Blogger CookingDiva - Chef Melissa said...

Hola Neil! Wow, what a story. I am glad to report that farmers markets here in Panama still showcase good low prices. I can not say the same about a few supermarkets, yes I agree, they always have neat labeled fruits...but the prices are too high. Yesterday I saw green mango sold for $3.00 a piece in a supermarket in Panama City. At the farmers markets they are sold for $0.25-0.75 each
Can you believe it?
Have a great week!

At 11:49 am, Blogger Haalo said...

Veg Out is one of the four community markets and runs under different principles than those organised by RFM.

At 3:20 pm, Blogger MyKitchenInHalfCups said...

In the big city Dallas farmers market, I have to really be careful that I'm really dealing with the "farmer" and not a middle man. When I'm in Michigan in the small towns around where we have a place, it's very easy to know I'm dealing with the farmer.
I usually see higher prices are much more common in the big city.
Over charging is always possible. I think I just have to pay careful attention to prices. I sure don't want to over pay.

At 7:17 pm, Blogger Ed said...

I'm glad I'm not the only one thinking this way as I think the public is beingtaken for a ride. I've been meaning to cost the difference as I've been surprised how much I spend sometimes at these markets. If you need sorrel I have an overgrown load on my patch at Vegout, plot 159 if I remember. Just grab a load. PS: Toenails are now rhubarb coloured.

At 9:20 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've never been to a farmers market so I couldn't say, but my ma has been a few times and has come back each time, astonished at the prices. We stick to places like the Box Hill markets for most of our goods, getting some fruit and veg from a local orchard.

After reading this post though, I kinda want to visit a farmers market just to see what it's like!

At 10:06 am, Blogger neil said...

Hi melissa, I do believe it, it seems we all have to be canny shoppers. Did you notice the unpastuerised milk?

Hi haalo, I've emailed them for more info and I'm still waiting. I was trying to write from the point of view of the ordinary shopper who knows nothing about the market principles.

Hi tanna, I think you really nailed it, are we dealing with farmers at all? In some cases yes, but not always.

Hi ed, I hadn't been for a while, so the prices were really noticable. Btw I bought the peaches that turned to mush. Rhubarb is a lovely red. Thanks for the offer, will clean you out of sorrel.

Hi ellie, Box Hill is a great market, though I haven't been for years. I think your mum's right - shop local and visit the orchards when you have the time.

At 10:18 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Neil, Comments on target. The apples are great aren't they (though expensive) Where do you go for yours? M

At 10:57 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

There are markets and markets. The rotating one on the Mornington Peninsula (Rye, Rosebud, Tootgarook and Sorrento on consecutive Saturdays of the month, not sure where when there's a fifth) is pretty good.

At 11:46 am, Blogger neil said...

Hi michael, the place we go for ours is Farnsworth's Apple & Cherry Orchard, 26 Paringa Road, Red Hill South, (03) 5989 2196.

Hi kitchen hand, is one of those markets held in an old drive-in? We pass one on our way to Red Hill.

At 6:26 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

the bath milk certainly is good. I just want to know how the unpasteurised cheeses are going to be labelled so we don't miss out!

At 10:28 pm, Blogger Kristin said...

Hi Neil,

Here in Canberra, they are very strict about who can have a stall. All vendors must be the farmers themselves, or somebody closely associated to the farmers. The rules are here:
The prices aren't as good as the wholesale fruit and veggie markets at Fyshwick, but they beat the supermarkets everytime.

At 11:52 am, Blogger neil said...

Hi cin, how about as mouse trap baits?

Hi kazari_lu, I liked the rules, especially this one..."Stalls must have signs with the name of the stallholder, who grew the produce and where it was grown. You need to know who is providing the produce." Though it doesn't keep substandard produce from the market, witness the peaches I just bought that turned to tasteless mush. Nor does it prevent overcharging either.

At 4:39 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My experience of farmers' markets, here in Sydney, is there don't seem to be a whole lot of farmers involved. Whenever I go, I'm invariably disappointed as they seem to be full of gourmet (read expensive) products.

I don't want to diss the many good stallholders and I know that being a farmer, here in Australia, especially if you're not doing mass production, is a tough, tough gig.

Many of the stallholders in Sydney sell jam, bread, sauces and preserves, which are all expensive. There's little basic fruit and veg.

I go along to farmers' markets hoping to find something different, something I can't get at Coles or my local shops. I'd love some heirloom tomatoes, or unusual varieties of fruit, or vegies that you can't get anywhere else. However, the best place to get these in Sydney is not a farmers' market, it's David Jones food hall.

The best farmers' market I've found in Sydney, is up in Castle Hill, which is a stones-throw from the Hawkesbury River Farmgate Trail.

At 2:29 pm, Blogger neil said...

Hi kathryn, sounds like a similar tale to Melbourne, shame isn't it?


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