Farmers markets grow up, take off |

Farmers markets grow up, take off |

Research is under way to pin down exactly how much farmers markets are worth to the economy since they emerged a decade ago.

A conservative estimate from Farmers Markets Association chairman Chris Fortune, a Marlborough chef and market founder, puts the figure at $30 million a year.

Waikato University is producing hard figures on the economic impacts of New Zealand's 48 farmers markets, as the national organisation cranks up efforts to future-proof local food trading and protect its unofficial brand.

New Zealand Farmers Markets are food markets where local growers, farmers and artisan food producers sell directly to local communities without a middleman. Stallholders can only sell what they grow, farm, pickle, preserve, bake, smoke or catch themselves from a defined area of their local geography.

The markets operate for a few hours on a weekend day, with some also operating on one week day.

Fortune, whose association was formed five years ago, says farmers markets have matured beyond being "teenagers".

"There's always a trendy stage with these things we are over that. We're past the look good, feel good stage. We're growing up, we're understanding what we have and using it to make sure the same model and principles on which we were founded are still there in 20 years."

Part of being grown up is protecting the brand, Fortune says, which is hard for a volunteer organisation with next-to-no funding.

The association is envious of its counterpart in the Australian state of Victoria where farmers markets' have received $8m in government funding.

Fortune says all his group needs is $200,000 annually "to make a difference".

"We rely on a volunteer committee at the moment. That's fine because it's part of the growing-up process but we've got to get better [closer to] with universities, to find the economic impacts on communities. Until we can collect and collate information on a national basis, we're always going to be seen as the little boys and girls."

The association has received $200,000 in the past from NZ Trade and Enterprise and the Ministry of Economic Development to help promote "Buy New Zealand". The money was spent introducing an "authenticity" standards programme, to which 60 per cent of markets have signed up, and launching a national website.

Fortune told the recent Farmers Markets NZ annual conference that global multinationals such as Campbells and Johnson & Johnson pharmaceuticals had approached the association wanting a slice of the concept.

"They want our customers over 50,000 a week, and that is very conservative. Otago attracts 5000 a week, Marlborough 2000 and that is over only three or four hours."

Fortune told the conference the markets and regional food producers needed to "stand up and claim what they own and what they need to protect".

"The only tangible asset that we all share, the only tangible thing we can truly claim to be ours and grow together is the two words 'farmers market'."

However, in its future-proofing mission and efforts to show who the "real" food producers of New Zealand are, the association is not commercially blinkered, Fortune says.

It is looking to engage with like-minded sectors and companies that will benefit its members through group discounts, generic sponsorship and regional funding pools.

Fortune says farmers market's have grown in popularity among those who don't accept mass produced food.

"Every week I get calls from producers stepping out of the mainstream for more financial reward and because supermarkets have chosen not to buy off these people.

"The fastest growth sector in New Zealand at the moment is support for butchers and delis. It's about shortening supply chains, about producers directly communicating with consumers, about where how and where it was grown, how to cook it."

Fortune says he started the Marlborough market after returning from overseas and producing fresh food from his land for his restaurant.

"As a chef I want New Zealand product. When I arrived back I was gobsmacked that my local butcher sent me Australian lamb, that my local supermarket stocked American asparagus, that I couldn't source local lamb.

"It all comes back to the supply chain and people telling us how we should shop and what we should buy through a limited distribution system of supermarkets where the major component of purchasing is price."