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Article by Neill Barston | 2nd July 2018

Market Force

Shoppers are ever more demanding about choice, where their food has come from and how far it has travelled. Buying local produce from farmers’ markets has continued to prove a popular trend, and even in tough economic times, East Kent’s farmers’ markets are a force to be reckoned with.

With more than 50 farmers’ markets active across Kent, they’ve become a highly valued asset to the economy, offering a truly independent taste of the Garden of England.

While the majority of these outlets are in central and western areas of the county, there are a handful of gems in the east that have flown the flag for the fine array of food and drink being produced in the area.
From award-winning ciders and wines, through to a broad spread of farms harvesting high-grade fruit and vegetables and other staple crops, the region is particularly blessed with the quality of its produce.

As the Kent Farmers’ Market Association (KFMA) has asserted, the dozens of monthly local shopping events that it is linked to offer unique experiences far removed from your average trawl to a chain supermarket.

They are part of the very fabric of our rural economy, offering seasonal produce that is freshly picked, provides traceability of food through speaking directly to stallholders, and helps foster a sense of community spirit.

Equally, discovering the provenance of food has become an especially significant trend nationally, as consumers’ desire for ‘clean labelling’ or knowing where produce hails from (as well as its ingredients) has become a major factor to which the food sector is continuing to respond.

Farmer’s daughter Susanna Sait, of The Goods Shed in Canterbury, has been at the centre of an impressive success story that has championed local producers. The facility has provided a much-admired outlet for them to sell their goods, which also includes a highly-rated restaurant. Over the past 17 years since opening, she explained its team had been greeted warmly by residents and had felt “really part of the community”.

Speaking to The Canterbury INDEX on the value of supporting local farm produce, its owner explained that without independent markets, shopping could become a sterile and dull process. “My reasons to buy local include eating for the seasons, as nature gives us the vitamins and minerals we need at the right time of year.

“Eating with the seasons means produce is better value for money, and with produce being local, it hasn’t travelled or been stored, so is full of nutrients. Once eaten, the body feels fed and doesn’t cry out for more food,” explained Susanna, who believed that shopping locally helped keep money in the community, in addition to reducing the need for often all-too elaborate packaging.

The Goods Shed owner added: “By supporting local enterprises, as a customer, you are likely to be known by name at a minimum. Your voice and opinion is heard and responded to. There is a convivial relationship between customer and business. In the multiples you are more likely a number.

“The markets also give farmers an alternative outlet for their produce to the supermarkets that have previously driven growers hard on price,” explained Susanna, who believed that becoming a farmer needed to be an attractive career for the future, so communities supporting such initiatives as dedicated markets could make a significant difference.

Commercial Challenges

While demand for locally-grown produce seemingly continues to rise, such smaller scale markets face financial pressures that pose a very tangible threat to their existence. They continue to face strong competition from national supermarket chains, as well as logistical problems thrown up by the prospect of Brexit. This has posed fears in terms of potential problems in store sourcing European labour during core harvesting seasons. The sheer cost of staging regular monthly markets has taken its toll on some outlets, with shock news emerging that Thanet Farmers’ Market will not be staging any events in 2018 due to financial pressures.

Despite being popular with locals, its organisers conceded it has failed to generate enough income to cover its costs, leaving uncertainty surrounding whether it can be revived.

Speaking to The Canterbury INDEX, Sarah Bowers, of Thanet Farmers’ Market, explained the monthly facility had offered a wide range of community benefits.

“The market provided a place for small local businesses to sell direct to the public. All these businesses have lost a regular outlet, which means a loss of income to them of course. In addition the market had regular customers who will now not be able to access those products.

“It also offered a venue for charities and community groups to give information to the public on their services, raise money and recruit volunteers. Over the years, it supported dozens of these groups. It also provided a social centre for people to meet each other and talk to local producers. We also had the cafe where friends and families could sit and chat, as well as the market providing a free children’s activity every month.”

She added that the market had also supported local businesses in other ways by buying services such as all its print for advertising from one of them, sponsoring the volunteer-run Broadstairs Information Kiosk that provides a vital service to tourists, and sourcing products for the cafe from a range of local producers.

According to Sarah, the market needed a venue that is free or can be hired for less than ‘commercial’ rates, revealing that the income from stalls each month was not enough to pay hire and insurance fees, or retain a market manager.

Keeping it Local

Similarly, Clare Millett, Chief Executive of Westgate Hall Market in Canterbury, believed the facility continued to be of great value to the area, but it too faced its challenges.

As a resident of Broadstairs, she expressed concern over the situation with the Thanet Farmers’ Market, and believed it was “vital” such facilities were preserved.

Clare said: “When I arrived here at Westgate it was originally a farmers’ market, but we’ve changed it more to support artisans and local crafts, as we didn’t want to directly compete with what The Goods Shed has been doing. But we do have stalls such as Jack’s Veg, which is run by a great young guy working with his wife. The reason we have been keeping it going is for local businesses and makers, and we’ve been well supported by Produced in Kent,” added the chief executive, who conceded that as fine as the Westgate Hall is, the century-old venue’s location off the high street meant they had to work hard
to gain passing trade.

Despite such issues, she remained optimistic that a growing range of stallholders, including specialists in vinyl records and vintage goods, would ensure it remains viable.

Clearly, while there are tests ahead for such markets, shoppers’ changing tastes towards seeking out locally-grown produce could well tip the balance in securing the survival of these vibrant and community-minded businesses.

Images: Mark Dutton

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