How farmers’ markets are helping high streets flourish

23 June 2024, 14:48 PM
  • Can a decent market help regenerate town centres and stimulate sales in independent retailers? Insiders say 'yes'
How farmers’ markets are helping high streets flourish

In retail it can be easy to posture about doom and gloom. Because there is plenty to digest here. The impact of Covid. The effect of the cost-of-living crisis. The struggle to meet the higher rate of minimum wage. Bad weather. The list goes on. 

But in amongst all of that, there’s good stuff happening. Retailers are being quick on their feet to innovate and adapt to a new shopping landscape. And ‘experiential’ shopping has become a ‘thing’. Creating those memorable moments that make customers want to come back time and time again – from tasting areas to cheese rooms.

Fitting neatly into the experiential shopping category are farmers’ markets which, organisers across the UK report, can have a profound impact on town centre footfall.

There are thousands of markets up and down the UK – a number that has increased by around 400% since the late 90s. Speciality Food speaks to some of the most successful amongst them, to discover why they are fantastic incubators for new artisan food businesses, and how they can breathe new life into high streets.

Our market has built loyalty for the town centre

Multi award-winning Stroud Farmers’ Market in Gloucestershire is considered one of the best in Britain (celebrating 25 years this year), and Gerb Gerbrands has been involved since the beginning in the 90s, when the rapid building of supermarkets on the outskirts of major towns changed the landscape of shopping as we know it completely.

“They were built about two miles from the town centre, and it was that classic story. The butchers closed. The veg shops closed. The town started to become a bit run down. Stroud has always been an active community town, so there was a series of community planning conferences which involved the town council, district council and members of the community, to see what the people of Stroud wanted.”

A cinema seemed to top the list. But so did introducing a local food market. Gerb was no stranger to markets, with a background making and selling wooden percussion instruments. He was keen to help.

“At this meeting,” Gerb says, “the council were going to spend £10,000 on a feasibility study. We said ‘why not just give us the £10,000 and we’ll do a series of markets to see if they work?’.” Miraculously, as anyone who’s tried to extract money from local government knows, they struck up an agreement, with the first market popping up in July 1999. It was one of just two known farmers’ markets in the UK at the time, alongside another in Bath.

“At that point,” Gerb says, “farmers’ markets were an American thing.”

As now, lots was happening in the farming world at the tail end of the 90s. The cattle industry was still reeling from the BSE crisis earlier in the decade. Supermarket power buying impacted commodity prices. And, says Gerb, a lot of small farms were forced to shut, unable to compete. “This is still happening 25 years later. But the farmers’ market movement came in in response to that.”

In the early noughties, Gerb explains, “everyone wanted a farmers’ market”, once they saw the regenerative effect they could have on town centres crippled by supermarket presence.

“It was interesting,” he says, “because farmers are actually quite insular. They’re not used to coming out into the public!”

While today it boasts around 50 to 60 stalls of all varieties each week, that very first market attracted 13 tentative producers on a monthly basis. All dipping their wellies into what was an alien world for them. Facing the public. Sampling and talking about what they’d made. 

It was, Gerb admits, difficult to entice stallholders at the beginning. They had no idea what to expect. “But the public massively supported it. If you’ve got a lot of customers, you get a lot of stalls, and it’s the support of the people of Stroud for the market that’s allowed it to keep growing and growing over the years.”

Of course, there have been bumps along the way. But these have only proved to highlight the importance of local food networks. Foot and Mouth, Gerb says, was devastating for farmers in 2001 and the years that followed. “Part of the government response in terms of compensating farmers was to create funding, which very much supported the local food movement. We got a lot of funding to run courses for farmers to come to the market. We invited farmers and growers – every aspect of farming, from livestock to veg growers, to people with orchards. They came to those workshops and learnt what you had to do regulation-wise in order to sell at a market.”

When the government swivelled its support away from this funding in the late noughties, encouraging producers to export, those working in the local food and farmers’ market arenas, like Gerb (who had also founded a market in Stow-on-the-Wold) weren’t prepared to let all their hard work go to ruin.

A national organisation for farmers’ markets, with a set of rules around how they should be run, and what distinguishes them, was founded. “The most obvious thing was that you can only sell what you make yourself,” he says. Quickly, Stroud market jumped from a monthly event, to fortnightly, to weekly in 2006.

Gerb can’t express just how fully this market has benefitted Stroud which, by any account, had not been a tourist spot, or point of interest for holidaymakers or shoppers before. “It’s transformed the town. And the whole district really,” he says proudly.

“We’re right on the edge of the Cotswolds. It’s a pretty working class place. But what’s happened in the last 25 years is it’s become very trendy. We’ve had masses of house building here because we’ve got a direct line to London, and people are moving in from far afield. A lot of people would say that is a result of the market. Every week I have people saying, ‘thanks so much for running the market’.”

The boost for local shops is undeniable, he continues. “People come in now to see what’s here. Stroud is a funny kind of place. At the top of the town, where the farmers’ market is situated, we have the Shambles market. It’s been going for 200 years. It’s a tiny little area, but because of the overspill from the farmers’ market, that’s rammed with stalls on a Saturday, and it’s where all the independent shops are. Then the bottom part of the town is where all the national shops and precinct are.”

Shoppers, Gerb says, arrive in waves. From 8am, as soon as the veg stalls are set up, there are massive queues of regulars, armed with tote bags, ready to stock up for the week. By 10am, a new wave has flooded in, followed by visitors who’ve been dropped off at 11.05am by the morning train from Paddington.

“People come from further away to do their shopping. Every week the veg sells out – and we have three organic vegetable stalls and two non-organic! There are three to five cheese stalls, and five meat stalls. They all do really well, and seem to say it keeps getting better and better.

“It’s really quite astonishing.” And being weekly has only grown footfall, as shoppers don’t have to remember which Saturday of the month the market is on. It’s every single weekend. “Our customers are incredibly loyal. Even if it pours with rain all day, those people who come for veg, still come for veg!”

‘We need to keep these local supply chains alive’

Abbey Leys Community Farmers’ Market celebrated its 20th year in 2024, with Farm Retail Association winner Janet Harrison at the helm.

“The 4th April, 2004. That’s when it started,” she says. “I remember the date very well!”

Farmers’ markets were in their heyday, and Janet was already part of a group of farmers and growers in the area, who were looking for a new venue. “We had a spare shed, so we ran two markets there. Real farmers’ markets following the FRA certification. And that’s how we came to all move to Abbey Leys.”

Due to a variety of reasons, Sunday became market day. “And it’s the best thing we ever did,” Janet explains. “We ended up having so many families coming on a Sunday morning. It was heaving, and we’ve kept going. We’ve even still got three or four stallholders who were with is in 2004 – we’re all getting a bit older now, but we’re so proud of it. We never thought it was last so long!”

Twenty to 25 stallholders are part of the community, increasing with the availability of seasonal ingredients such as herbs in the warmer months. Despite being ‘in the sticks’ around 12 miles outside of Manchester and close to Knutsford, requiring shoppers to put the work in to visit, footfall is strong, and the market has given those living in rural areas (whose local shopping opportuniies are limited) access to wholesome, fresh ingredients.

“It’s very much a community occasion,” Janet says. “Lots of groups locally are involved. There’s always something going on. And people like to meet the producers and talk to them about what they’ve got that day. We also like selling direct to customers and explaining what we’re doing on the farm. It cuts out the middle man, and gives people the opportunity to buy reasonably priced food. We’ve got some very loyal customers. They even get in touch to tell us when they can’t come, which is amazing!”

Janet echoes Gerb’s sentiment that it’s bread, veg and meat which resonate most with consumers. “We have at least three meat stalls each time, and they sell out!”

Over two decades, Janet has been delighted to see some of the stalls expand, going on to pursue bigger ventures. A raw milk producer, for example, has opened her own farm shop. “That’s what we’re here for. We’re often a starting point for younger farmers and younger traders, as well, to help them get on the business route.

“Gazegill Organics in Lancashire started with us, and moved on, starting to build up what they were doing. There are several like them. And we don’t mind. As a market manager, you’ve got in mind that if you bring in younger makers, they can test the market, and they will want to grow. Alan Sugar started on a market, didn’t he?”

Janet loves the fact Abbey Leys has been a launchpad for success. “It also keeps what we have fresh, with new stalls coming in all the time around the core offering of bread, meat and vegetables.”

She also says it’s important to remember the power of a local market – especially in times of crisis. “When the recession hit in 2008, and in Covid, we were able to maintain supply where supermarkets couldn’t initially. Because we’re independent we have complete control over our own supply route and produce.

“We proved, especially during Covid, we could remain open, and we were very busy as a result. That’s important. We are an ageing population in the market and younger producers won’t want to come in if we can’t get that engagement, so we really need to support them, and help them to maintain skills in the farming industry.”

‘The ripple effect of farmers’ markets is huge’

Justine Paul, of award-winning Suffolk Market Events, says the impact on towns of farmers’ markets is undeniable – she has data proving her markets bring additional footfall into the places where they’re located. They are, she admits, hard work, but properly resourced and invested in, can reap rewards even in the smallest destination.

Justine took on her first market in the Medieval village of Lavenham in 2008. “I’d just moved there from London and went to the farmers’ market really excited about buying good food. But there were about three stalls and hardly any customers. It was so disappointing. I heard they were going to close it down and my husband, Alex, said ‘you could do that’.”

With no background in marketing or markets, but a career in nursing that had built up her grit, resilience and determination, Justine set out on a mission. Fast-forward to today, and her business runs three weekly markets, and around 150 markets and a food festival each year.

“It’s kind of been a bit like a rolling stone that’s carried on gathering moss,” she says. “It’s grown organically, and we work with hundreds of local producers these days.”

There has been a definite resurgence in interest in food markets, Justine agrees, pointing out these phases tend to come in cycles “and usually after a bad experience”.

“So, for example, a few years ago when we had the contaminated meat scandal, there was a real desire from people to know the provenance of their food. And in Covid, the local food supply chain was the only one that didn’t break.”

At the moment markets are “pretty healthy” as a result, but there’s no understating the impact of increased living costs and tough economic conditions. “It has been a difficult couple of years. When the pandemic happened it was terrifying for businesses like ours. We had no idea how we were going to move forward. We had to close for two-and-a-half months, but when we opened back up we were outside, and people appreciated that, and they came back to shop with us, or started shopping locally with us for the first time. As a result, our business grew. They’re strong at the moment.”

There is, Justine adds, an increasing group of shoppers (including younger shoppers) who want to know where their food comes from. “And at a farmers’ market they can meet the producers, ask questions and really get to understand what they are buying.”

Bread continues to sell out at her markets. “People definitely gravitate towards a really good bread stall, and they’ll go to a meat stall if they know the farmers and build up a rapport with them.”

A surprising success story has been raw milk. “People come from all over to buy raw milk at our markets,” Justine says. “Our producer will bring 100lts and it’s gone in an hour!”

It gives her, she explains, a huge amount of satisfaction knowing the big impact the markets have on small businesses. But also on the places they are held in. “It is massive. We’ve got evidence from a number of different markets. So Lavenham used to be held on a Saturday. For various reasons we had to change it to a Sunday. There was uproar at that time, in 2019, but now Sunday has become a really massive trading day. More and more markets are being held on a Sunday, and shops on high streets are opening as a result on a Sunday because we can bring in so many people.

“In Lavenham, research shows between 75% and 80% of people come to the market and then go down into the village and will shop in the village or have lunch or a drink. The ripple effect is huge.

“In Hadleigh, another one of our markets, we know the footfall on our Friday market day is the highest of the week. It’s overtaken Saturday. I’ve been working on that market for five years. It was three stalls, and now we average 17 a week. It’s brilliant.”

So evident is the difference, that local councils and town centre managers have approached Suffolk Market Events to work their magic in other locations because, “they know there’s a direct correlation between a good, busy market, and town centre regeneration.”

That is all very well, but, “it’s a slow burn,” Justine admits. “It takes time to build up the markets, and you need to invest in them for the long term. It’s years of weekly investment paying for signs, road closures, getting people to work there.

“It’s all very well people talking about local food chains, but for them to be sustainable, that investment has to be there. Markets are a great thing to invest in. They’ve been going since the beginning of time. They are a community hub. People will always gather for a market. There will always be a love for the old-fashioned way of shopping.

“But we’re up against massive supermarkets where you can park for free and get all your shopping in one go, or get it delivered to your house.”

Justine says there needs to be recognition of this, and councils need to think about the bigger picture and the positive ripple effect a market can have.”

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