Getting farmers markets right PART 1: farmers vs agents

Queen Street Growers at the SAGE Farmers Market Moruya

Across Australia, people are increasingly interested to know where their food comes from and how it was produced. Farmers markets — where consumers buy fresh, locally-grown food and value-added produce directly from growers or producers — provide an authentic retail experience sought by many consumers while supporting local economies and food systems.

Here in NSW, there are now more than 80 regular farmers markets throughout the state, showcasing the harvest of local growers from the bountiful hinterland regions of northern NSW to the seaside towns along the Sapphire Coast and out west to the famous Riverina.

There is a perception that farmers markets are more authentic and sustainable and provide a higher quality of goods than other community markets or retail outlets, and often this is the case. But these essential elements can be eroded when farmers markets stray from best practice, as laid out by the Australian Farmers’ Markets Association and adopted by the FMANSW (see our FAQ on best practice principles for more information).

What are farmers market best practices? Essentially, they are good management principles based on research drawn from existing studies, resources and guides on farmers markets across Australia and the globe. Every farmers market faces its unique challenges, whether they are recruiting and maintaining vendors, attracting customers or general risk management. Good farmers market management that adheres to best practices can address these issues, increase transparency and help create a thriving local food hub that supports farmers and customers alike.

In the first of FMANSW’s “Getting Farmers Markets Right” series, we will be breaking down vendor guidelines and setting clear conditions for operating an authentic farmers market.

As defined by the Australian Farmers’ Market Association:

To distinguish farmers’ markets from other community markets, it is important that sellers be farmers, farm family or farm staff, farm collaborative stalls, or specialty makers.

This, in principle, means no agents or resellers. An agent is any person selling on behalf of another person who is not involved in the growing or specialty production of the product. If they didn’t “make it, bake it, or grow it” then they shouldn’t sell it. A reseller is any person who sources produce from another party, including farmers, wholesaler markets or retail stores, with the intent to re-sell that produce to consumers.

So, our Best Practice Principle #1 is: No agents or resellers.

Here are some top reasons why:

AUTHENTICITY

The fundamental purpose of an authentic farmers market is to facilitate a direct connection between consumer and producer. This direct interaction allows farmers and specialty food producers to obtain a fair price for their products, puts maximum dollars into the pockets of farmers and places provenance at the heart of all transactions. Most market customers rate this direct relationship as an important or very important factor in their market experience — so restricting agents and resellers helps maintain consumer trust in the authenticity of the produce and products on offer.

Trust is the keystone of a farmers market’s success. Agents and resellers create a lack of transparency between seller and consumer, leading to a loss of trust that ultimately pushes people back to supermarkets. If farmers markets don’t respond to the trust placed in them with authenticity, they will lose those customers along with their reputation, hurting our hard-working farmers in the process.

Peter & Mary Connolly at the SAGE Farmers Market Moruya

SUPPORTING LOCAL FOOD SYSTEMS AND ECONOMIES

Agents and resellers can access and sell produce that is not necessarily local or seasonal, which restricts opportunities for local and small-scale agricultural businesses that are often utilising more sustainable land practices and adhering to better animal welfare standards, and stifles the development of local food systems. Importantly, having a retail outlet specifically for farmers helps ensure that farmers can keep on farming, preserving local and regional land zoned for agricultural purposes.

When customers shop at an authentic farmers market, they keep dollars in the local economy. And although it may seem that farmers markets are competitors for local grocery stores and other food outlets, research suggests they complement each other by increasing total sales on market days. Conflict between farmers markets and local grocery stores is far more likely to arise when farmers markets include agents who are in direct competition by selling food from the same sources as grocery stores. Studies show that every dollar spent locally circulates in the community in a phenomenon called “the multiplier effect”. By bringing in food grown outside the local region, agents diminish this effect.

Farmers markets provide an opportunity for radical change for some producers in both their production and marketing strategies. For farmers and producers, selling directly to the consumer offers several benefits but most importantly, it has the potential for increased financial returns by “cutting out the middleman” — shortening the conventional supply chain involving packers, distributors, transportation, supermarkets and other retailers. Australian small-scale farmers face a challenging economic climate dominated by large, industrial farms and a highly concentrated supermarket industry, rendering the vast majority of farmers as “price takers”. Agents contribute to this culture of powerlessness, whereas the primary mission of farmers markets is to empower farmers to be the “price makers”. Agents can also have an artificial inflationary effect on prices at farmers markets, as they are under pressure to cover costs over a shorter time frame.

Dewsbury’s Free Range Pork at the Southern Harvest Farmers Market Bungendore

SUSTAINABILITY

No agents or resellers typically means fewer food miles. “Food miles” is a term used to indicate the distance that food has traveled, ultimately affecting the freshness of the produce, and is also an indicator of the fuel and energy consumed during transport. Food that is bought at major wholesale markets or supermarkets is often produced at one location, processed at another, then distributed through a central warehousing system, before traveling back to the market to be resold — burning up fuel and using chemical or other means to keep it stable for transport and sale. The irony is, sometimes this food may travel long distances and be handled several times only to be sold in the region where it was produced.

Farmers and other producers also reduce waste. A fisher or meat producer will look for ways to use all parts of the animal they harvest or farm. A vegetable grower will return unsold produce into their system of production. “Waste” is a word seldom used by a producer, but for an agent or reseller, it’s a consequence of doing business.

KNOWLEDGE

Agents and resellers hinder another important function of a farmers market — developing regional identity and pride in the produce that is grown locally by members of the community. Farmers markets promote an understanding of seasonality and connection to country, which becomes obscured when agents or resellers sell out-of-season or products from outside the region. Agents cannot provide accurate and detailed information to consumers about how the produce is grown and can use misleading labels and statements in an effort to attract consumers.

Direct marketing from producer to consumer allows farmers to research their customer base by receiving immediate feedback from their patrons. It enables farmers to discern food trends, test new products like new vegetable varieties suited to their regional climate and ultimately build their business. Farmers markets are ideal places to promote other farm events, such as pick-your-own operations or educational farm visits. This direct communication channel also builds customer awareness of the health, environmental, social and economic benefits of supporting local, sustainable agriculture.

Mullumbimby Farmers Market

“BUT WHAT IF…?”

But what if a farmers market is just starting out and doesn’t have enough local growers or produce?

Letting agents or resellers into a farmers market because there is a lack of certain produce grown locally is the thin end of the wedge. There are a number of questions to consider:

What happens if a farmer starts selling a new product they have grown locally that is already being sold by an agent or reseller? Should the agent be expected to stop selling that product and how will they react if they are ordered to?

If there are no opportunities presented by product gaps, what effect would that have on the spirit of local farming enterprise?

How would the hard-working, local farmers respond to non-seasonal produce purchased at the wholesale market in Sydney being sold alongside their locally grown farm produce? Would the farmers stay at the market or decide to leave?

How will it impede consumer connection to and understanding of the local food system?

Market operators and managers must carefully consider these questions and more so that they best serve the farmers market ethos, the producers and the community as a whole. This requires developing clear policies and procedures and the wherewithal to follow them. Finding a sustainable business model suited to the local context can take some time, but it also grants the local food system the opportunity to grow and meet the demand at a natural pace.

Shopping at farmers markets has some obvious differences to the supermarket retail experience, which is designed to function as a one-stop-shop that caters for a range of consumer needs. While supermarkets may offer customers the perceived benefits of convenience and increased choice, it’s important to remember that farmers markets are not only about the retail experience. They’re educational systems that demonstrate how food is produced, by whom and why these things matter. Building a thriving and successful farmers market will require efforts in building up and securing the producer base to ensure a variety of local products and goods are available, as well as educating consumers on the importance of buying seasonal produce and supporting the local food economy.

Farmers markets that start out with a small farmer base can plan and strive to expand farmer participation over time, and the FMANSW will deliver the necessary support and resources to help build authentic, vibrant farmers markets throughout New South Wales. When a market operator stays focused on best practice and works to engage and communicate with the public in an open and transparent manner, the resulting trust and goodwill translates into customers. Attracting customers to farmers markets is no mean feat and the challenges are significant, but the reward is a thriving local food system.

It takes significant effort with planning and commitment on the part of a dedicated organising and management team to create a successful, authentic farmers market. While the benefits of best management principles and practices may take time to become apparent, they will help set the foundation for a long and prosperous future for local agriculture.

The reward of best practice: happy customers

WHAT YOU CAN DO TO SUPPORT BEST PRACTICE

As a customer, you can ask questions. The best way for consumers to find out about the origin of their food and the way it was produced is to talk to the local farmers about their particular practices. Contacting the market manager and enquiring if it is a producer-only market can also clarify any concerns.

As a market operator, commit to establishing and upholding ​producer-only ​and ​local ​requirements for vendors. This includes standards of professionalism that promote open communication, mutual respect and the best interests of the market. Enforcing this policy fairly and consistently ensures that the market and its producers and customers are best serving the local food system.

And of course, join the FMANSW to show your support for our Purpose and Charter to improve outcomes for farmers and communities alike.

For more information or advice about agents and resellers at your market, contact us.

4 thoughts on “Getting farmers markets right PART 1: farmers vs agents

  1. Interesting article on the subject of agents and, for the most part, I wholeheartedly agree. But consider this: what if a local producer and a local foodie collaborate to bring that producer’s product to the local farmers markets, simply because the producer isn’t in a position to do so? It’s a straight up collaboration, no dodgy deals, and the ‘agent’ is armed with the knowledge of how the product is grown, harvested, produced and can convey all of that to the customer? It’s exactly the position in which I find myself. I am fortunate in that I am able to be a part of my local farmers market. I sell a locally grown and produced extra virgin olive oil from Captains Flat. I too live in Captains Flat and have done so for 11 years. It was an accidental meeting that occurred a couple of years ago that has now transpired into a partnership of sorts between me and the producer; one where I have watched the annual olive harvest, asked hundreds of questions and done significant research. I’m genuinely interested in the whole process. I originally was only intending on selling my own value-added products – infused olive oils – but the collaboration with the producer has made it so much more. It’s a boutique oil and a boutique market. The producer has determined how he wants his product sold and for how much. My ‘cut’ is access to his fabulous product at a sustainable price so I can ‘value-add’ and by doing so, create strong interest in the original product. It’s a win win. The producer is not solely relying on his olive oil business for his livelihood; I think this is true now of many small-scale producers. They have other business interests on the go. For many – including my producer- they just don’t have the time or energy to be involved in Farmers markets and find themselves looking for other markets (in my case, the producer exports the largest proportion of his harvest to Taiwan where there is a readymade market ). This is where an ‘agent’, or perhaps we should call it a ‘collaborator’ can actually advance farmers markets. The alternative in our case is that all of this wonderful product would end up overseas! How is that fair to our local community?! The reasons for the producer’s choice of business model are, as I’m sure you’d appreciate, complex. But nonetheless I count it a huge privilege to be able to bring the producer’s incredible product into the local market. I don’t source any other olive oil. Nor does it stop any other olive groves from accessing farmers markets in this area. In fact, most consider themselves ‘too big’ to bother with farmers markets and seem to be into the online market. I think there is room for ‘agents’ when one can establish the provenance of the product and where there is a single, genuine working relationship between the producer and ‘agent’. I’m not an employee, partner and am not paid. I get a proportion of sales of course but the majority of my turnover comes from my ‘value-add’ of infused oils. And, the fact that I’m genuinely part of the community from which the original product comes! I’m in this for more than money; in fact, my business model predicts profit in approximately another two years…..! I fit this in around a full-time paying job, being a busy parent and numerous other things in my life! I’m excited, and so is the producer, when we can persuade customers to buy a ‘real’ extra virgin olive oil that has come from their local area rather than go and buy the cheap rubbish from the supermarket! I understand the need to establish and maintain the provenance of produce and for customers to have access to the truth about where their food has been grown, how it has been produced etc. But dare I say, I think there’s another type of ‘agent’. And I know I’ve proven this a hundred times over at the farmers market in which I’m involved.

    1. Thank you for commenting, Kerenza. We hoped that people would add their perspective, because it is a complex topic.

      There is definitely scope within the best practice model for collaborative enterprises to participate in genuine farmers markets and these can take a few different forms. As long as the producer is receiving the full price for their product, the primary goal of a farmers market is being met.

      But farmers markets have other goals, too. Connection to the producer is another important one. So customers buying your infused oils are given that experience because they can talk to you, but for the products carrying your olive grower’s label, they are not. Yes, you are able to communicate extensive knowledge about the oil and demonstrate provenance, but information alone does not satisfy that customer desire to connect with the producer. Some will value that connection more than others, but farmers markets are intended to facilitate connection to farmers. It’s their raison d’être.

      While you’re to be commended for your enterprise and it’s clear you share your passion for your and your grower’s products with your customers, you are as you say, where the products supplied directly from your olive grower with no value-adding are concerned, acting as an agent. Does that mean your market would not be considered a genuine farmers market? If this was the only example of agency at the market, it would be a pretty harsh judgement to say so. But if it was commonplace, then the market would fall outside of the definition.

      You mention the grower and other olive oil producers in your area are too big to attend a farmers market. If so, so be it. As mentioned in the article, product gaps at farmers markets are not to be feared. They are an opportunity for a producer to take advantage of. If the gap doesn’t exist, the opportunity doesn’t exist for a smaller grower looking to build their business and economic development is stifled.

      If a grower chooses to only sell outside their local market, that’s their perogative. Export is the preferred business model for many producers and sometimes that means disappointment for local consumers. If that producer also sells directly online, then the local market can access their products… just not via the farmers market and that’s OK too. Farmers markets can be quite “Darwinian” if given time and the opportunity ie. they evolve naturally, with product gaps being filled by a grower who does want to supply their local community and do it face-to-face.

      The issue can get quite cloudy where value-added products are concerned, as you have illustrated. But it’s much more clear cut for primary ie. farmed or harvested products. Selling someone else’s primary product is possible when there is an agreed collaborative arrangement in place with the market, the products are clearly identified with the individual producer, the producers receive the full retail price for the goods and each producer, at some point, attends the market and shares the costs of attending.

      Perhaps your olive grower could attend an occasional market with you? It might be a nice promotional opportunity for you both… almost like an author holding a book signing. They might find they enjoy the experience enough to attend from time to time. Some larger producers still attend markets for the social interaction and promotional opportunity, rather than any economic motivation.

      None of this is intended to criticise your business or efforts. Clearly, you are building a business of integrity and we always need more of that for our local food systems. Thank you for the opportunity to explore some of the “but what if…” questions around the topic of agents and resellers at farmers markets.

      1. Thanks for your reply. Just for clarification the market in which I am involved is a genuine farmers market. Again, I do believe there is quite a difference between a straight-up agent who can buy produce from anywhere, anytime with not a
        single connection to its origin and a shared business arrangement. My presence does not discourage nor deter others from attending but everyone has a different business model. There are also other farmers markets within our area and as creatures of habit we often like to stick to what is familiar and what works. Either way, what a wonderful choice for the consumer. Within a 50km radius they have numerous options available to them to access genuine, local produce.
        We’re probably not going to completely agree on this point. I think there’s a level of idealogical thinking that lies behind the belief that the consumer automatically wants to connect and is interested in connecting with their producers and is therefore more motivated to purchase directly from the farmer. My observations (at least from within my are) are that the average consumer is far more complex than that and it’s going to be a slow, gradual change to take consumers away from being motivated mainly by price and more by the provenance of what they’re buying and a desire to connect with the person who’s grown or produced that produce. If only consumers were motivated in such a way…..the supermarkets would be struggling and farmers markets everywhere would take off!

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