Are you being fooled by farmer's markets?

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Farmers Market

Food at farmers' markets typically costs a bit more than the standard fare at the supermarket. It's an accepted part of the trade-off that you pay more to support small, local businesses which cannot look to the supermarkets for their income.

However, a report claims that this isn't always the case.



What is local?

Farmers' markets have taken hold in the UK - with 750 regular markets held around the country. They are popular with those who want to eat locally-produced food and be sure of the provenance of their dinner.

However, an investigation by the Daily Mail found that rather than being populated by very local businesses, many stallholders travel around various markets during the week. It argued that this made a mockery of the idea of supporting local producers.

The rules about locally-produced food vary between markets, but usually state that a farm has to be within 30 miles of the market - except in London where it can be up to 100 miles away. This means a firm from the Isle of Wight can be found selling produce in London - which hardly seems local. A survey in 2008 by Oxfordshire Trading Standards found that 77% of people were unaware of the guidelines.

Supermarket links

The report also highlighted that some of the producers had links to supermarkets. It identified a number of firms that sell at both farmers' markets and in supermarkets. These include household names like Pieminister: the reporters found the the pies called Moo and Heidi in branches of Sainsbury's and Asda for £3.50. However they also sell at a farmers' market, where a wider range of the pies are on sale at £3.95.

Meanwhile, The Tomato Stall is a regular at farmer's markets and is also part of Wight Salads which sells to a number of supermarkets. It told the newspaper it was a separate limited company and that the specialty tomatoes are grown separately for the farmer's markets - providing a closer link to the grower.

The report questioned whether all this was clear to shoppers - who might assume the stall-holders were small local enterprises who needed support against the might of their competitors who sold to the supermarkets.

Are farmer's markets worth it?

FARMA, the National Farmers' Retail and Markets Association is very clear that this is perfectly acceptable within its guidelines. It explains: "Many farmers and producers have started off selling at farmers markets and grown to the stage where their products can also be found stocked in other outlets. They continue to sell at farmers markets because they are loyal to their customers who love them, and they value the face to face contact. Selling direct still give farmers a better return for their work."

You could argue that if the produce is still made in the same way it always was, farmers shouldn't be punished for getting a separate contract with a supermarket.

The farmers also argue that you're not necessarily paying more at the markets either. The Kent Farmers' Market Association did a price comparison of the ingredients for a Sunday lunch for six people at a local farmers' market, and compared it to the same shop in two supermarkets. It said the markets completed the lunch for £20.51, which was 51% cheaper than Waitrose and 30% cheaper than Sainsbury's. The University at the West of England, meanwhile, carried out a study that found that organic meat and poultry was 37% more expensive at the supermarket, and organic vegetables were 33% cheaper at the markets.

In instances where the produce is more expensive, the sellers argue that their costs are higher, because they are transporting and selling smaller quantities - so charging slightly higher prices is not a profit-grab, it simply enables them to offset the extra cost.

They also argue that the quality is better. The food has come straight from the farm to the market, rather than fruit and vegetables being transported to a regional hub and then out to the supermarkets, so fresh produce is fresher.

If you want to know whether the farmers' markets are worth the money, perhaps the only way to tell is to ask people who shop there. They can enjoy a day out in a nice environment, grab a bite to eat and soak up the atmosphere. Maybe asking them whether they could buy tomatoes more cheaply elsewhere is missing the point.

But what do you think?