Nina Planck

First, a bit of background about London Farmers’ Markets. I grew up on a farm in Virginia and I’ve sold at farmers’ markets all my life. My parents still make a living exclusively from farmers’ markets. They grow fruit and vegetables and sell them in and around Washington, DC.

The lesson for us when we first started farming in 1979 – and weren’t doing very well standing by the side of the road in little town near our farm – was that we had to go into Washington, meet with other farm­ers, and sell at farmers’ markets. You have to go where the people are. Now this is the beauty of urban agriculture – the people are already there. But my background is working with farmers to get them to travel into town, to benefit from the presence of other farmers, and also from the large number of people in a small space. In four hours, many more people walk by the farmers’ market than by the farm gate. So my interest is in increasing income to farm­ers, getting fresh food to people in cities, and having that work commercially for farmers.

The rules at LFM markets are: every producer has to come from within a hundred miles of the M25 – or rather all the food is produced within a hundred miles; you have to grow or produce it yourself; and you have to be at the market to sell it. Many farm­ers’ markets in the UK have a smaller catchment area than we at LFM have. They require that all the farmers come from 20 or 30, or sometimes as far as 50 miles away from the market. We didn’t think that made sense for the regional farmland that is required to feed a population the size of London’s. Nor did it make sense to go looking for farms which didn’t exist in the suburbs of London.

In 2002, we ran twelve weekly markets. We’d like to do more with these markets, and one goal is to have more local foods. I mean local in two senses: first, that we include more farmers who are closer to the market. At the moment the vast majority of our farmers grow their food less than 50 miles away from the market, so we’re pretty close to the catch­ment area of a lot of the rural farmers’ markets in this country. Secondly, more local foods would also mean tightening up LFM’s few exceptions to the local-ingredients rule for processed foods. For example, we allow bakers – and probably always will – to buy flour. Bakers are the only producers not required to use ingredients grown within 100 miles. However, there are lots of arable farms struggling in the commodities market in this country. We’re good at growing cereals. The EU export market for cereals is essentially phoney, because it is heavily subsidised. Therefore, if we want arable farmers to be producing something economically viable, rather than just paying them to plant hedgerows, they ought to be looking at different markets. I think there’s a big market out there for muesli from local ingredients, and for baked goods made from local or regional flour.

More organic food is another goal. About three years ago, when I first started talking about farm­ers’ markets with people here, there was strong support from two sectors in particular: local food activists and the organic world. That was a wel­come thing, because it meant there was lots of political support for farmers’ markets. However, I didn’t think that we should sacrifice certain farmers on the cross of ideological purity on organic food or local food miles. That is partly why I set the LFM catchment quite wide, and also why I don’t believe farmers’ markets should be for organic farmers exclusively. All farmers should have a chance to meet the public, so that they can learn what the pub­lic want, and also so they have chance to earn the retail price. A third reason we shouldn’t exclude con­ventional farmers is this: if they do anything to change methods of production when they sell direct, it will be in the direction of greener agriculture, not the other way round. You don’t meet consumers who say, ‘I quite like your carrots, but I wish you’d use more organophosphates.’

A fourth reason for including non-organic farmers is that there are many green practices in agriculture that fall short of legal definitions of organic. I would like farmers to find outlets for those products, and farmers’ markets are a good example. My own family started out using scarcely any, but a few, chemicals. Then we stopped using chemicals entirely, but we’ve never chosen to certify our farm because we use a seawater-based fertiliser that Virginia certification standards – and now US certi­fication standards – don’t allow. We prefer to keep it. We think it gives us healthy plants and tasty veg­etables, and that it’s good for us as farmers and consumers. We didn’t think certification was right for us. Yet we get premium prices at all our markets because our relationship with the consumer is direct, and they are satisfied that we grow our food the way we say we grow it.

I think there is room to let a thousand green flowers bloom. I’m happy to say that a lot of LFM’s farmers are moving in a greener direction. ‘NO INSECTI­CIDES ON OUR FRUIT’ is a much more common sign than before. Remember, farmers have lots of reasons to go green. Some are concerned about their own health and spraying. Some are concerned about getting better prices. Some are concerned about the environment, others about consumer health. In the farmers’ market all these motivations come into play in different quantities with different farmers and different consumers.

We would also like to see more viable city farms. There are lots of city farms, and they own valuable land. But too often, in my view, they’re just educa­tional. I’d love to see those farms have a product to sell to local people. I do know that Dean City Farm in Merton, near our market in Wimbledon Park, has five acres of arable land, and not a thing growing on it. That’s pretty valuable real estate. I understand that this city farm has to raise £5000 a month, but it hasn’t any product to sell to raise that money. I also know that on a plot this big, if you’re growing com­mercially, you could be making – assuming just two markets a week – £1000 a week. That’s a modest estimate.

Let me show you how little land you need. A friend of ours bought a farm in Athens, Georgia. The first year he planted half an acre, set up one box scheme, and attended one weekly farmers’ market. He employed one person, part-time. His season was March to November, much shorter than in the UK. His gross sales in the first summer, on one half an acre, were $20 000, all of which he reinvested in the farm. (He worked as a carpenter in the winter.) In the second season – which was two months shorter, for non-farm reasons – he grew on one acre and grossed $30 000, with a profit of $10 000. The crops Andrew grew – cut flowers, basil, rocket, French beans, sweet peppers, and other vegeta­bles – are low-volume but high-value. We’d like city farms to grow these things.

Another goal is to include more ethnic consumers, producers, and foods at LFM markets. All the foods would be seasonal and regional, of course. This is well developed in the USA, in most cases naturally. There wasn’t a central government policy to get Hmong and Laotian producers in Massachusetts or Wisconsin to grow stuff for the customers coming to city farmers’ markets. It just happened – first, because ‘ethnic minority’ consumers came to farm­ers’ markets, many of which are in cities, and started to ask for certain things, and then the ‘ethnic majority’ farmers started growing what they wanted them to grow, and then new ethnic minority produc­ers said: ‘Why don’t we grow these things?’ There have been more sophisticated efforts to encour­age this. But mostly it just happened because it’s a market place, and the market has a magic quality of getting two people together to trade.

It’s happening at farmers’ markets all over the USA: there are Mexican growers and consumers in California and Texas, Asians in the Northeast, black Americans in Washington DC. At one of our DC markets, where the customers were mostly black, we learned what they liked to eat, and how. We learned about collard greens and other leafy brassicas like mustard, which are traditional Southern foods, and we learned that many people preferred to eat them after one frost had made them sweet.

In London, there’s a Bengali women’s co-op in the East End. At the moment they grow, like most inter­esting women’s projects, not even as much as they can eat themselves. So I say: just grow a little more, because we’re going to have a farmers’ market in Tower Hamlets (opened in April 2002), and the neighbourhood is some 70 per cent Bengali.

Finally, we’d like to see more use of derelict land and buildings. I’ve alluded to this on city farms – empty, disused space drives me nuts. In pictures of the Havana growing projects, you see tiny spaces filled with vegetables. In London there is a lot of space. It’s the least dense city in Europe. Our tradi­tion has everyone with his own little green patch behind his house. But it’s not only gardens I have in mind. It’s public space in corners and places like that. It would be fun to use the Barcelona model for city parks. I haven’t been there, but I understand that instead of big green spaces, they built tiny ones; little urban oases, where people could sit down. It was a new model for open urban spaces. I’d like to see the same approach for growing spaces.

All these goals have one thing in common. In London, the string linking these goals and the advantage for each of them is that there is already a known system of selling local foods. It’s not only our markets; LFM organises ten weekly markets, but there are others, for example, the high-quality food market at Borough, in Southwark. The forums for selling local food already exist. I’ve often seen local growing projects founder on having nowhere for the produce to go. They’re either growing just for home consumption, and have too little to sell, or they’ve got no funding to carry on, that is, no income. Selling retail is the answer.

We would be very pleased to allow allotment gardeners to form co-ops and sell at LFM’s. Furthermore, an allotment stall at the market would be a great way for local authorities to meet the statutory Policy and Planning Guidance 17 require­ment that local authorities publicise and encourage the use of allotments.

Demand for local food is high. Demand is every­where. We can’t meet it. We don’t have the farmers. We spend about a third of our time recruiting farmers. We’re working on that. What we don’t need to work on is finding customers. The customers are there. Any local growing project seeking an outlet has one.


Updated: October 7, 2015 — 5:27 pm