Getting farmers markets right PART 2: define “local”

The metropolitan Castle Hill Farmers Market in north-west Sydney draws from the nearby Hawkesbury region

Local and regional food systems have taken root across Australia in recent years, with a flourishing of farmers markets, community supported agriculture, food hubs, cooperatives and collectives all working to re-establish a more direct connection between those who grow our food and those who consume it. Farmers markets are not only providing an important link between producers and eaters, they also encourage locals and visitors to become aware of the social and environmental benefits of buying food closer to its source. Why is “local” an important component of farmers markets best practice? In this second edition of FMANSW’s “Getting Farmers Markets Right” series, we will break down the major reasons why, but first, a few definitions.

What does “local” mean?

Local means different things to different populations.

For a small farmers market in a regional community, local might mean within 100 kilometres, or within the boundaries of their shire. For a farmers market within a larger regional centre with a bigger population, local might mean within 200-300 kilometres, or about a 3-hour drive. For a large farmers market within a metropolitan population, local might include the whole state.

Definitions of local may vary depending on the production capacity of the region or the intention of the farmers market in question. People living in areas that are agriculturally productive year-round, like the Byron Hinterland, may have an easier time sourcing food that is grown or raised 100 kilometres (or even 50 kilometres) from their market centre than those in arid or colder regions, like the Orange Farmers Market, which may define local in a more regional context. Small-town farmers markets wanting to promote and support the producers in their immediate community may have more precise criteria, like Kangaroo Valley Farmers Market, who primarily accept stallholders within 30 kilometres of Kangaroo Valley.

When a farmers market decides to define its local region, it needs to strike a balance between providing enough variety for the customers to make shopping at the market appealing, without losing a genuine sense of “local”, and providing enough customers to make it worthwhile for the producers to travel the distance to the market.

As a general rule of thumb, if a market is including produce from anywhere within Australia, it is not a genuine farmers market. That is a supermarket definition of local.

A genuine farmers market should define their local region and declare it to their customers. Stall holders who are farmers should be located within this defined local region. The manufacturing premises of value-adding stall holders and the main ingredients of their value-added products should be located within and sourced from within this defined local region. As always, there can be exceptions, but these should be assessed and tightly controlled.

As part of their model Farmers’ Market rules and guidelines, the Australian Farmers’ Market Association recommends that:

The Farmers’ Market operates with clear geographic boundaries (GB) from within which its stall holders are located and produce is sourced. The GB is defined by the individual Farmers’ Market. Some Farmers’ Markets may have similar or overlapping boundaries.

While the geographic component of what “local” or “regional” means may vary between farmers markets, setting clear geographic boundaries reinforces the primary function of a genuine farmers market: facilitating farmers and food producers to sell their farm products directly to consumers to support local and regional food systems.

What is a local/regional food system?

The term “local food system” or “regional food system” is used to describe a method of food production and distribution that is geographically localised, rather than operating on a national and/or international scale. Food is grown or livestock is raised and harvested close to a community, town or city and distributed over much shorter distances than is common in the conventional supermarket system.

The work of local and regional food systems is not just about smaller distribution networks and supply chains but is driven by values that enhance the economic, environmental, and social well-being of a particular community or region. These may include economic and agricultural values that preserve local farmland and foster community economic viability, environmental values that conserve and regenerate agricultural landscapes, natural resources and biodiversity, or social values that empower farmers, workers and eaters to actively participate in decision making in all sectors of the system. Local food makes all kinds of sense and is growing in recognition and popularity.

To support the growth and development of local food systems through farmers markets, the FMANSW is laying down our Best Practice Principle #2: Set a clear geographic boundary.

Here are some great reasons why:

ABILITY TO AUTHENTICATE

When producers are located within an accessible travel distance for market operators and managers, they are better able to ensure the authenticity of farmer and producer operations, minimising the ability of agents and resellers to sell produce sourced elsewhere (see our Getting farmers markets right PART 1: farmers vs agents for more details on this issue).

Proximity also allows for other locally focused quality assurance systems to be implemented, such as Participatory Guarantee Systems, a low-cost organic certification scheme carried out by the producers themselves. In practice, producers are directly engaged in both defining production standards and in the peer review and certification of each other’s farms. Direct communication between producers and consumers about social and environmental sustainability criteria is maintained through the provision of their goods to local farmers markets, building knowledge and consumer trust.

When farmers markets operate with a local ethos, it allows farmers and market managers to retain control over the nature of the authentication and certification of farms. These authentication systems are created by the very farmers and communities that they serve, encouraging the re-establishment of authentic local food markets and local food culture. Genuine farmers markets foster valuable community relationships, while also reinforcing provenance and local identity through the sale of regionally unique items.

The Orange Farmers Market has declared the Central West as their local region.

SUSTAINABILITY

Local farmers markets and food systems rely upon a network of small, family farms, rather than large, industrially operated farms, as the source of food products. An extensive range of negative environmental and health costs have been associated with large-scale industrial farming, ranging from air, water and soil pollution to the loss of biodiversity, poor animal welfare and adverse health effects for farmworkers and surrounding communities.

While local produce sourced from small-scale farmers does not come with an implicit guarantee that it was produced in an environmentally sustainable manner, supporting local food systems generally means less energy, emissions and food miles in getting produce from farm to market. The 2008 CERES report, Food Miles in Australia, puts this point into perspective, revealing how the 25 most common food items purchased weekly in a Melbourne shopping trolley have travelled some 70,803 kilometres. Fresh, local produce also requires little to no packaging and saves on energy by mitigating the need for refrigeration associated with longer travel distances and long-term storage.

Customers wishing to support environmentally-sustainable and regenerative farming practices can find out more information about production practices simply by directly asking the local producers at their farmers market. When markets stipulate a local boundary, these claims can be authenticated or verbally verified by market managers or other surrounding farmers. Sometimes everyone knowing everyone’s business in a small community has its benefits.

SUPPORTING LOCAL ECONOMIES AND KEEPING FARMLAND FARMING

As mentioned above, local food systems value a closer connection between grower/producer and consumer, often cutting out the middlemen involved in processing, packaging, transporting and selling food. This ensures more retail dollars go directly to farmers, increasing the economic viability of small farming operations. Farmers markets positively affect local farming businesses by providing a low-cost platform for local producers to sell their goods while supporting their capacity to self-determine their prices. Unlike large industrial farms, small family farms are more likely to spend their dollars in the community on farm-related inputs such as seeds, machinery and farm supplies. Food that is grown, processed and distributed locally stimulates local employment and enterprise.

When small farmers have a viable outlet like an accessible and low-cost farmers market through which to sell their produce, it can help lower the risk of farm business failure, ultimately preserving valuable farmland by keeping more farmers in business. The creation of relationships and knowledge sharing between farmers and their customers through the direct-to-consumer channels that farmers markets provide allows the preservation of farmland to become a shared goal for both farmers and their local consumers. A local food system creates the platform for a community to collectively and transparently decide what their food priorities are and how to work together to achieve them.

In Australia, the industrial food system – supported by government policies that favour competition, efficiency and export-oriented agriculture – has restructured the countryside, encouraging farm consolidation (where smaller farms are swallowed up by larger farming operations) and intensive farming practices. Major supermarket chains capitalise from larger farm holdings or businesses because they require larger quantities to stock their stores at the cheapest price possible. This business model ultimately displaces smaller, less “efficient” farmers and suppliers who are unable to service the large volumes demanded by major supermarket chains. When it becomes unviable for smaller farmers to compete, farmers subdivide and sell smaller parcels of their land after losing their farming income. These smaller parcels of farmland can still be farmed productively, but they are too small to participate in the industrial system.

To keep these small farms productive and not sold to lifestyle landowners or subdivided further into lot sizes that are unsuitable for any kind of food production, farmers markets become an essential vehicle for maintaining precious farmland and to keep farmers farming, by providing an alternate, viable market for small producers excluded from the industrial supermarket supply-chain and larger export markets.

The SAGE Farmers Market chose the “100 mile” definition of local.

INCREASING FOOD SECURITY AND RESILIENCE IN REGIONAL AREAS

Farmers markets play a vital role in providing access to fresh, healthy food in both regional and urban centres. They have become recognised as valuable elements towards not only local food
systems but also healthy built environments, providing fresher produce with more nutritional benefits than that at major supermarket chains and contributing to increased fruit and vegetable consumption in households and communities.

Resilience, in a food context, is the ability of a community to maintain a certain level of health and wellbeing by withstanding shocks or stressors to its food supply. Shocks and stressors might include damaging weather events, transportation issues, water shortages, volatile global markets and other disturbances that can disrupt the supply of food being sourced from other states or countries. A farmers market with a clear geographic boundary helps increase at least some level of community self-sufficiency in food production, providing a valuable buffer to shocks, stresses and price hikes if the broader food supply is disrupted.

BUT WHAT IF…?

But what if a farmers market is just starting out and doesn’t have enough local growers or produce? And what if value-adders can’t source their main ingredients locally?

It can be tempting not to set any geographic boundaries to allow a greater range of producers and products into a farmers market, if there is a lack of locally grown produce. But there are a number of questions to consider:

How would the hard-working, local farmers learning to adapt and respond to their local environment react to non-seasonal produce that was grown elsewhere and purchased at a wholesale market being sold alongside their locally grown farm produce? Would the farmers stay at the market or decide to leave?

How might it impact the incubation and viability of local farm and food businesses if there are no opportunities to grow and expand their enterprise? How might it impact the connections between local producers and businesses?

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

WHAT YOU CAN DO TO SUPPORT BEST PRACTICE

As a customer, you can speak to the farmers and stallholders directly and ask them 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 farmers about their farm and the particular practices they employ there.

As a market operator, commit to establishing and upholding geographic boundaries ​and ​local ​requirements for vendors. You could create signage or other materials that demonstrate this boundary or ask farmers to place the location of their farms, or food miles travelled to market, within their own signage or promotional material. Enforcing this policy fairly and consistently promotes open communication and mutual respect between producers and customers while 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 defining a local region for your market, contact us.

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