In June 2010, Karen Parry and Geoff Page had the opportunity to visit two of Italy's Earth Markets in Milan and Bologna. As stallholders at three of the nine farmer's markets in South Australia, they were able to learn some new tricks from their Italian market cousins and pass on some new ideas in return.
Initial impressions were that our markets have a similar look and feel. All provide a buzzing social meeting place, with the buzz starting quietly as the market opens and the volume increasing as the morning wears on. As you might expect, there are differences in the product range between Italy and South Australia. If they were the same we would be questioning whether we are meeting our aims of providing local and fresh produce!
Whilst our markets have travelled different journeys in their inception and development, they share a common purpose, which is to increase the connection between food producers and consumers and so provide direct support to producers, enable people to buy fresh and local produce and allow people to learn about and have more confidence in the food that they purchase.
Discussions with the Earth Market managers and market volunteers helped us understand more about the market workings.
Market inception and structure
The Italian and South Australian markets both have some professional staff to organise and develop the markets with the support of a committed group of community volunteers. The Italian Earth Markets are a natural extension of the activities of the Slow Food movement, which was able to use its existing connections and knowledge to secure the start up resources and offer training and technical support.
In South Australia, the current farmer's markets were developed independently. Some were able to build on start up knowledge gained by others but all have needed to source start ups funds separately. Several South Australian farmers' markets are now exploring the New Zealand and Victorian approaches to establish overarching state organization with anticipated efficiencies in purchasing and sharing of lessons learnt.
A number of the South Australian markets use a membership model where stallholders and customers pay an annual membership fee, which then entitles them to 10% off all products. Stallholders also pay a weekly stall fee dependent on stall size. These funds are used to employ professional staff to manage various aspects of market administration and development and are considered an important approach to support the long-term viability of the markets.
The South Australian markets also have management committees, which comprises 3 main groups: producers, value adders and consumers. This mix has proved important to give a management voice to the diverse interests.
Market set up
At both Earth Markets, the tents are purchased and erected by the market managers and their helpers, which we saw again at the Stroud Farmer's Market, a long-running and successful British market. This increases the start up costs of the market but creates more uniformity of look, which could be seen as either a plus or a minus. This is a cost saving for the stallholder, compared to the South Australia approach where the stallholder purchases their own tent. However, the part of the Italian arrangement that we find particularly attractive, is that stallholders don't need to arrive as early to erect their tent and have a bit longer in bed. Bonus!
In Italy, the market managers also organize the production of a poster per stall, which outlines contact details, product range, farm location and any relevant credentials. Given that Earth Markets and farmer's markets have a strong focus on local produce with low food miles, the inclusion of a ‘distance indicator' is an interesting way of raising awareness of how far produce travels to reach the market. The poster also provides some transparent ‘stability' to each stall's product mix - if that's what you list, that's what you authentically produce and you can't add products in and out that impact on other stallholders viability.
In the absence of a single standard of certification of food safety, sustainability or environmental management in Australia, the poster option provides a visible space for outlining each stalls' most significant credentials. However, with biodynamic, certified organic or environmental management systems as a certification option in Australia, this information might require more explanation whereas at the Earth Markets the space is mainly for informing whether the stall has Slow Food Presidia status.
Product mix across the stalls is seen as a make or break issue in terms of long-term success. All market organisers recognise the importance of having a good number of stalls with fresh produce that people require on a weekly basis such as vegetables, fruit and dairy products. Being able to meet customers' key weekly food needs provides an incentive for people to attend and purchase weekly.
Particularly with respect to vegetables, our markets seem to be facing the same issue of struggling to offer sufficient stalls providing a broad range of produce over an extended period. The legacy of monocultures and their perceived efficiencies is the loss of knowledge of managing a diversity of crops across the seasons. We later observed a cooperative arrangement across two farmer's market stalls where they had organised to supply different produce to manage providing a broader range for the customers.
It is also worth observing that the Italian markets have the fortunate issue of being ‘wheyed' down with a wonderful choice of cheeses, which requires some decisions about who attends or whether stalls are rotated. In Australia we have some great cheeses, but not yet the length of tradition and diversity of varieties, so all those who apply can be accommodated. At the Australian markets, whilst we have a good variety of fresh produce, on balance we have more ‘value adders'. This is a term that we use to describe those that take the fresh produce and process it in some way to ‘add value' to the original ingredients e.g. pasta, bread, jams, cakes, ice cream etc.
One thing is certainly the same - the longest queues can be found at the fresh vegetables and seasonal produce stalls. The cherries at the Milan Earth market were bought very quickly!
With their origins closely linked to the Slow Food Movement, the Italian Earth Markets have a strong focus on education. They are places to distribute a range of materials and, through workshops, serve as an interesting taste education opportunity. Workshops are led by food experts or chefs who explain the finer points of difference in process, quality, ‘regionality', freshness or flavour. When we visited the Milan market, we joined a workshop that discussed the difference between specially prepared chestnut paste versus Nutella and artisan breads versus commercially baked varieties. There was no doubting the difference but, no matter your level of knowledge, there is always value in the expert talking you through the main differences.
In contrast, some of our South Australian farmers markets have focussed on adult cooking classes and general produce appreciation delivered by local chefs. Kids Clubs are also popular, which teach children how to cook and grow vegetables.
Some aspects of education of customers present similar and continuing challenges for all markets in Italy or Australia. Not all produce can be available all year but if we are patient then we will be rewarded with produce that has more flavour and better keeping qualities.
Article written by Karen Parry and Geoff Page who are stallholders at 3 markets in South Australia. Geoff also works at UniSA and is researching farmers markets, their mode of operation, systems of governance and the benefits over time for producers. Thanks go to Carlo Baggi, Gigi Frassanito, Silvia Monasterolo and Lorenzo Conterno for their assistance and hospitality during his recent visit to Italy in June 2010.
Web sites of markets we participate in