Farmers' markets buying guide

Should you trade in your supermarket trolley for food straight off the farm?
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  • Updated:13 Feb 2008

02.Types of markets

Carrots on a market stallIf asked to name a market, people in Melbourne might instantly think of Queen Victoria Market. In Adelaide, Central Market is likely to be top-of-mind, and in Sydney, many would likely nominate Paddy’s or Flemington.

How do these and the other smaller local markets held in the schoolyards and open spaces of our suburbs and towns differ from farmers’ markets?

Wholesale produce markets

Markets like Adelaide Produce Market, Brisbane Markets, Melbourne Markets, Newcastle Markets, Market City (south of Perth) and Sydney Produce Market (popularly known as Flemington) are all examples of wholesale produce markets. Only Sydney Produce Market also sells to the public (though generally in bulk) . The stallholders at these markets are not the growers themselves, they’re largely wholesale middlemen onselling to retailers.

Large retail markets

Think Paddy’s Markets in Sydney, Central Market in Adelaide, Queen Victoria Market in Melbourne. These aren’t farmers' markets — the produce at these markets is mainly sold by a mix of retailers, though depending on the market, you may also find some growers there. Some also sell crafts, homewares, DVDs and so on (something most true-to-concept farmers’ markets don’t allow).

Smaller local mixed-goods markets

Local markets that often sell some fresh produce, but also craft, clothes or other items; they’re often run by local councils or community groups. These markets don’t require stallholders to be farmers — they can include resellers, who may have bought their goods from the central markets, or indeed anywhere else. There may be some growers stalls there, but the markets are not farmers’ markets.

Organic produce markets

These markets may include growers, but it’s not necessarily part of the deal. Because of the challenge of sourcing a wide range of organic produce throughout the year, these markets often also allow organic resellers (as well as other things like crafts and alternative therapies), so if the provenance of the food is important to you, ask who grew it and where the stallholder sourced it. Also, as always, look for 'certified organic' labels — it’s your best guarantee of true organic practices.

How to spot a farmers’ market

There’s currently no accreditation system in place here for farmers’ markets, unlike in the UK and US , and until some funding is available, national or even widespread accreditation and auditing of markets and vendors are a long way off.

In Victoria, however, some progress is being made. The Victorian Government has provided the Victorian Farmers' Market Association with some funding and work has started on developing an accreditation system there.

The Australian Farmers’ Markets Association (AFMA) says one of the best protections consumers have now is that genuine farmers’ market stallholders quickly report neighbouring stallholders with dodgy practices to the market manager — and this tends to keep stallholders honest. But the market manager’s decision about the allowed practices is only as good as the market’s charter — what does it allow and what does it prohibit?

Your best protection is to enter into a discussion with stallholders and get a feel for their knowledge and relationship with the foods they’re selling.

Questions to ask at the markets

  • What’s the market called? Unfortunately the presence of the words farmer, grower or producer in the name of a market, while a guide, doesn’t necessarily mean the market would satisfy AFMA’s standards, for example .
  • What’s on offer? Are there craft stalls, bric-a-brac or clothing? True farmers’ markets stick just to produce (including flowers) and things made from it, such as preserves, cheeses and bread, and perhaps other things that relate to growing food, such as seeds, plants and animal feed or fertiliser.
  • Is it in season? Farmers’ markets sell seasonal, fresh produce, so brussels sprouts in the middle of summer and tomatoes in the middle of winter are an obvious clue. Be sure to ask the stallholder where they came from. And keep in mind that the produce on offer can be either conventional or organic.
  • How far has it come? Not all farmers’ markets have rules about how ‘local’ produce must be, but many of the regional ones do — they’re showcases for their region’s food. In cities, where much of the food has to be carted in from somewhere else, the rules can be less strict. But if you see Northern Territory mangoes or far north Queensland bananas in a Melbourne, or Sydney market, for example, ask a few questions — you may decide you don’t want to embrace the food miles they represent.
  • Does the stallholder have a clue? You should be able to get convincing answers to questions about where the produce came from, how it was grown, when it was picked and what the stallholder does on the farm — not to mention have a helpful discussion on how you might turn it into dinner tonight. If it’s value-added produce, like jam or flavoured oil, the stallholder should be able to clearly tell you which ingredients they grow and which they buy.

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