FARN MARKETS … Farmers Markets … whatever you want to call them … are heading towards the gallows … and a home-made, organic, bio-dynamic, hand-harvested noose. My hope is that before such a drastic sentence is handed down, we can get there with a lariat and protect this greedy beast from inflicting fatal self-harm.

This has all come about because a country boy (me) had the great pleasure of spending a weekend with my city living big sister in Essendon, Melbourne. So what do you do with a rural lad when you have him in the big smoke? Well Megan accompanied me to a ‘Farm Market’ held in a near-by local city suburban park.

“They have it on the second Saturday of every month. I think it does the rounds each weekend to various venues.”

My first reaction was excitement. Primary producers peddling their wares direct to the public. Growers in rows of stalls instead of rows of produce. Farmers surrounded by a crowd of city folk (and looking more comfortable with the concept that I would have thought possible). Not a wholesaler in sight. No industry bodies. No middle-men milking the farmers and getting fat on the cream. There were representatives of regional and rural Australia all over the park – in a city. Primary producers meeting consumers. Interactions. Encouragement. Support for fresh produce. Fresh food heading straight to the plate. This is brilliant. In fact, it seemed too good to be true.

As indeed it was.

It’s not that the quality of produce available was anything less than agreeable. On the whole, due to the freshness (recently picked and packed), the care (picked and packed especially for Farm Market day), and the fact that many of the vendors were the growers, overall most items of produce would be a ribbon winner at any of the 1000’s of “Agricultural Shows” that feature annually in most rural and regional Australian towns. And the delicately prepared ‘gourmet treats’ were truly divine.

My suspicion was aroused and my initial enthusiasm quelled when i bought a couple of items.

“Did you say that the naval oranges are $4.50 a kilo”?

“Are the olives are $16.90 per 200gm tub”?

(… but that’s $85 per kg).

I AM ALL FOR FARMERS AND PRIMARY PRODUCERS being paid a fair price for the fruits of / and their labour. We buy a box of locally grown random fruit and veg every week from our local RealFood Network. The farmers set the price – we are always happy with the quality and quantity we receive … a respectful, fair and reasonable transaction.

I also have a couple of close friends who have fruit orchards. They tell me what they are paid by the wholesalers per box of fruit. I can assure you that it is no reflection on the price at which these items make an appearance on supermarket shelves. The mark-up is huge.

I’m not denying the right of the wholesalers or Coles and Woolworths (referred to hereafter as ‘BigSupa’) to make a profit from the services they provide … that’s not the direction of this discussion. My concern is that the good people of regional and rural Australia have seen the produce prices in BigSupa, and have decided that if people are happy to pay those prices, then that’s what we’ll charge at the Farm Markets.

It sounds quite plausible until you give it some sound, reasoned, considered thought.

Sustainability as a word has been hijacked by pro and anti environmental groups in recent times. All pushing an agenda … from a platform … accompanied by a bigger purpose. But as it’s the best word for describing the concept I am attempting to convey, so we’ll have to go with it – tarnished though it may be.

The problem with the concept of Farm Markets charging mainstream supermarket prices is that it’s not sustainable. Farm Markets run the risk of making themselves a fashionable niche, premium product and thereby wasting the fantastic opportunity that the Farm Market concept presents. After all, fashion changes faster than a swarm of the Australian Plague Locust (Chortoicetes terminifera) can strip a crop – and that’s fast! So to be a fashion item rather than an essential part of suburban life seem to me to be rather a short sighted, poorly considered investment.

MY IDEAL FARM MARKET is a place where growers / primary producers offer their produce at discounted prices (when compared with the big supermarkets). The overheads of your common garden variety Farm Market stall-holder is nothing like those of a supermarket. No wholesalers. No Board of Directors. No shareholders. No centrally located, air-conditioned, security service supervised suburban address on which huge rent is paid. Fewer staff. Less waste / spoilage. And I am pretty confident in saying that the tax rate is lower for cash sales at Farm Markets than those paid by BigSupa (albeit on arguably questionable moral and / or legal grounds … yet the fact remains).

So considering all the competitive advantages of the Farm Market, how and why do the vendors justify the prices being (at least) those of the big supermarkets?

Sooner or later, if we fall into the quick-buck-trap, the public will give up on the Farm Market construct, and go back to familiar, convenient and comfortable BigSupa.

Consider this. On particularly hot and cold days … or as life gets even busier … or when money is tight so you shop in the one place for the savings on fuel and parking (or for fuel vouchers and flyBuy points) … whatever the reason … the writing is on the wall for Farm Markets whilst they choose to price-gouge the customer. All for the sake of a few quick bucks. It seems to me to be murky view of business and sustainability. Here we have a situation where farmers are relying on city folk making an extra trip, finding an extra park, walking through a public park (no trolleys, no paths for heels, a potentially muddy / dirty exercise, no aircon, few if any credit card facilities … so off to the nearest cash machine they go…hopefully to return) and we are making them pay as much as or (often) more than they would if they went to the supermarket. I suggest that we are in danger of killing of the sustainable goose. As Mother would say: ‘Greed and short-sightedness cometh before a fall’.

This is what makes sense to me … a sustainable, realistic, mutually beneficial deal that the Farm Marketeers of regional and rural Australia make with their city supporters … PLAY FAIR. A simple message. An easy to understand concept. A mutually beneficial outcome. After all, have we all not learnt how depreciating it is to be royally screwed in a business transaction? Have you ever found yourself thinking (whilst not saying it) “I’m never going to shop there again so long as I live … and I’m going to tell everyone I know to avoid that rip-off merchant like the plague”. Yes, me too. And you can bet that I stick to it as much as possible.

SO HOW ABOUT the Farm Markets doing themselves a favour, and at the same time showing a bit of respect to their loyal supporters by doing better produce at better rates, with the added incentive of a friendlier and more welcoming attitude than anything BigSupa can contrive to manufacture. The profit may be marginally smaller on any particular weekend, but just like everything else, if you play fair the people will continue come to the Farm Market on the second Saturday of every month and support your enterprise.

Let us seek an enduring, mutually beneficial arrangement.