Farmers\’ Markets

I am a nasty, nasty man, for I admit that I find these sorts of stories terribly, terribly amusing:

Farmers markets have become so popular – there are estimated to be about 550 across the UK – that there are concerns they are becoming victims of their own success. The argument is that if they get too big they lose what many feel they are all about: an opportunity for small-scale producers to sell goods produced nearby.

Just as the supporters of Farmers\’ Markets insisted, there is indeed a taste for good quality, locally produced food. Excellent, they worked that out and have built a system which provides exactly that. Might not be my cup of tea but so what, if it increases the consumer surplus of others then a damn good thing say I.

But that taste seems to be quite large, so much so that it looks as if it might turn into a real, large, industry. Horrors!

But then, how do they think the supermarkets, against which they see themselves rebelling, got so large in the first place. By, err, supplying what people wanted to buy, wasn\’t it?

6 thoughts on “Farmers\’ Markets”

  1. So Much For Subtlety

    I am waiting for the day that Tescos jumps on the bandwagon and opens a Farmer’s Corner in every shop. The Guardian’s readers would be a little conflicted at that point. Although not, of course, if Waitrose did it I expect.

  2. Does anyone know of any web based farmers markets? I don’t go shopping anymore, preferring the online ordering and delivery service of the major supermarkets. I’m slightly price sensitive, but don’t mind paying a premium for local quality produce.
    But the main driver is convenience. I can order from Tesco tonight and get my groceries delivered tomorrow. They carry enough warehouse stock to back that up.

  3. Monty,

    You may be better off finding farms that do deliveries in your area. Go to a farmers market, and ask them about it.

    You’ll struggle to get the service of Tesco. The farms that do deliveries round here seem to do it once a week.

  4. This would have been the gold occasion for Tim Worst-of-all (btw is this a pseudonym?) to prove the Guardian wrong but he blew it.

    “The argument is that if they get too big they lose what many feel they are all about: an opportunity for small-scale producers to sell goods produced nearby.” This is nonsense. If the market gets bigger because there are more local small-scale producers and more consumers wiling to buy their produce then there is no problem. In most places of the world, Farmers Markets are huge. They are the places where a large proportion of the city population buys their food. The problem in Britain is maybe that your food culture has been so thoroughly degraded that what is normal elsewhere appears to be exotic. Gosh, you are 30 years behind even the US? Unbelievable. But then Britain is the place where the most disgusting kind of bread imaginable (to non-Brits identifiable only as a kind of papery paste) has been invented and successfully marketed. Well, Britain *is* the home country of capitalism. Coincidence?

  5. Here’s the reference (an excerpt from Felicity Lawrence’s book, Not on the Label):

    Like much of food manufacturing today, the bread sector has become highly concentrated. By 2003, 11 factory baking companies were making 81% of the 9m or so loaves we eat each day, in only 57 factories around the country. Two giants dominate the market, British Bakeries and Allied Bakeries. Between them, they produce two-thirds of British bread. …

    Then, in the early 1960s, a method evolved that revolutionised the centuries-old process. Researchers at the British Baking Industries Research Association in Chorleywood developed a way of making bread that had first been used in the US: instead of allowing two to three hours’ fermentation, they found that air and water could be incorporated into dough if it was mixed at high speeds in mechanical mixers.

    Double the quantity of yeast was needed to make it rise, chemical oxidants were essential to get the gas in, and hardened fat had to be added to provide structure – without the fat, the bread collapsed in early experiments. But the process removed labour, reduced costs and gave much higher yields of bread from each sack of flour, because the dough absorbed so much more water. Air and water are the secrets of that springy loaf. By 1965, the Chorleywood bread process, or CBP as it was known, had become widespread. CBP requires the addition of a hard fat with a high melting point to give the bread structure. The fat has to remain solid at temperatures of up to 43 C, artificially hardened or hydrogenated fats tended to be used. Unfortunately, hydrogenating fats create trans fats which are known to increase the threat of heart disease. Hydrogenated fat may sometimes be listed simply as “vegetable fat”, but since it counts as a processing aid, it is not necessarily declared separately. Fractionated fat is replacing hydrogenated fat as both the industry and the public wake up to the latter’s health risk. It is typically made from palm oil that has been cooled until fat crystals form. The hard fraction is known as palm stearin and used to be considered waste, but then it was found to have the high melting point that is so useful in food manufacture.

    Salt also goes into bread to add flavour. Although levels have been reduced in the past decade, they have remained high. Traditionally, flavour develops during fermentation, so when you eliminate that, you need higher levels of salt.

    The nutritional gulf between a well-made wholemeal loaf and a white-sliced factory one is enormous. It’s not just what goes into the white loaf, it’s also what has been taken out.

    etc. etc. People like Worst-of-all will no doubt contend that this is consumers’ choice. And in part it is true, since people in other countries have never adopted this gruesome concoction that molds itself to your teeth “as though it were dentist’s putty”. But was it informed choice? Did anybody tell consumers how it is made and what is inside?

  6. Here’s more:

    The industry view is that people wouldn’t buy white sliced bread if that was not what they wanted. But, of course, it’s not that simple. The economics of the bread market are so distorted that for many people there is no real choice.

    The baking industry, despite being so concentrated in the hands of the two main players, is now at the mercy of the forces that really control our shopping today: the big retailers.

    At the root of the problem is “loss leading”. It works like this. Everyday groceries, such as bread, butter, milk and sugar, are classified as known-value items (KVIs). These are the key purchases whose price shoppers know and by which they judge which shop offers the best value. Most prices are no longer marked on packets but only appear on the shelves, where we notice them briefly. As a result, most of us have little clue what other items cost.

    White sliced bread is one of the supermarkets’ key competitive weapons and has been sold below cost for some years. In July 2003, the cheapest white sliced bread in the major multiples was being sold at 19p, when the cost to the retailer was between 22p and 26p. If the supermarkets had been selling it with a typical retail margin, it would have cost 28p-33p. Bread in England is half the price of similar bread in France and a third of the price of the German equivalent. The cheapest bread is nearly always an own-label loaf, which gives the supermarkets more bargaining power over the suppliers since this undermines the manufacturers’ own brands by making them look like bad value, and increases competition between suppliers.

    And, of course, the retailers’ losses on KVIs are made good in higher prices elsewhere – on those items we can’t remember the price of. Healthy foods, such as fruit and vegetables and wholemeal bread, tend to have the highest retail margins, whereas loss leaders are often the least healthy purchases – over-refined cereals, highly processed products full of salt, fat and sugar. So loss-leading drives a race to the bottom: it undercuts quality foods and distorts the market in favour of the cheapest and unhealthiest. And it has put most of our traditional bakers out of business.

    Tim adds: No, not a pseudonym. The connection between the birthplace of capitalism and the British diet was well explained by Paul Krugman. Try looking up his piece. As to the bread… have noted that most supermarkets now have their own bakeries in store? That choice is now larger than before?

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