Farmers’ markets are big business in Ireland and growing bigger each year as more small towns and suburbs seek to cash in on the trend which sees artisan cheese-makers set out their stalls alongside the posh pesto man and the butcher who sells organic beef and homemade sausages.
And it’s hard not to like them, despite the fact that they are often cold and frequently wet and never cheap. Moseying through the higgledy-piggledy aisles, soaking up the atmosphere – and the samples – and buying the occasional dirt-encrusted root vegetable is a pleasing way to pass an hour.
The concept supports small businesses, is environmentally friendly and the quality of the food on offer is considerably better than what you might expect to find stored under the harsh fluorescent lights in your local supermarket. Or at least that’s what we have been led to believe.
Last week the reputation of at least some of Ireland’s farmers’ markets took a knock when RTÉ’s widely respected and long-running farming show Ear to the Ground forcefully made the point that some stallholders in some markets might be taking advantage of gullible consumers – or “yummy mummies in SUVs”, as one cynic Pricewatch spoke to described them – by flogging mass-produced stock flown in from all over the world and tarted up to look like organically-produced local produce.
The programme pulled no punches in pointing out that while equivalent markets in France are rigorously controlled, the rules in Ireland are relaxed and no clear definition of a farmers’ market even exists.
THERE ARE CURRENTLY 129 self-styled farmers’ markets of various sizes dotted throughout the State – two years ago there were just 80 – and the sector is worth approximately €28 million annually. At present it is regulated by multiple government departments: the Department of Agriculture has responsibility for food production and the granting of organic status; the Department of Health has responsibility for food safety issues; Fisheries looks after seafood stalls; and the Department of the Environment is responsible for permits and planning.
Trevor Sargent, the Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture and Food, has plans to bring some order to the markets and will kick-start that process in the new year with meetings with local authority managers, aimed at devising rules to boost standards. He has described farmers’ markets as a huge growth area and says he wants to establish the remit of local authorities in improving facilities across the country.
Critics say that the move is long overdue and point out that in some markets the farmers are outnumbered by traders who import produce and sell it at vastly inflated prices. Consequently local farmers can’t get a look-in because rents are too high – the cost of renting a stall in some Dublin markets is €70 a week (a not-insubstantial sum for a small producer) while in parts of rural Ireland it is a far more manageable €20 per week.
One of the critics of the high prices and imported produce is Consumers Association of Ireland CEO Dermott Jewell. He believes buyers run the risk of being ripped off. “We are quite concerned and have been for some time,” he says.
“In many cases people are not able to buy proper farm produce at farmers’ markets and they are not even getting locally-produced food. We are hearing examples of markets selling products of questionable quality and of questionable origin. It is becoming ludicrous.” He believes the sector should be policed with more rigour and all stallholders should be properly licenced before being allowed to trade.
“Consumers place a lot of trust in our farmers’ markets and I am afraid that trust is being breached. I am certain that in many cases the markets are not about helping local farmers bring their produce to market but are being used primarily as a vehicle to make money and that prices are being unjustifiably inflated and consumers are being fleeced.”
It is within Bord Bia’s remit to promote farmers’ markets as a means to provide producers with direct access to the public, and promote the development of local and regional speciality foods. The food board’s Emer O’Donnellan does not accept there is a serious problem with people being misled at farmer’s markets, claiming it is “not something that has come onto our radar. We are not being told that there is an overwhelming number of imports being sold in our markets.”
SHE DOES ACCEPT that the sector is in a “start-up phase” and says that “the place where we want to be will take time. We certainly do need to be looking at whether legislation is needed to more completely regulate the sector.” She believes Trevor Sargent has taken the appropriate first steps in arranging to meet city and county managers to discuss the organisation of farmers’ markets throughout the State and to devise rules to boost standards early in the new year.
The chairperson of the Irish Food Market Traders Association, Caroline Robinson, echoes some of Jewell’s concerns, although perhaps not as vociferously. She is not overly keen on stricter regulation but would like to see the public playing a more active role in ensuring that farmers’ markets do not become little more than outdoor supermarkets selling unseasonal fruit and vegetables from anywhere but here.
“I would like customers to be aware that if they are being offered strawberries in December then they are obviously not locally grown. The genuine farmers’ stalls will change seasonally and it is up to shoppers to watch out for those changes and shop accordingly.”