SAGE Farmers Market turns 5, the story so far

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A farmers market doesn’t create a local food system. A local food system creates a farmers market.

That’s not to say that they don’t depend on each other for their continued existence, but there’s no chicken and egg riddle here. The farmers and the food come before the market. How you make that happen is another blog post, but in SAGE’s case, it’s been a combination of luck (having the right people in the community) and doing the groundwork of supporting and training more growers, which is a large part of the mission of our organisation.

The fact that our market is such a success and has been so since Day One speaks volumes about how fortunate we are to have enough farmers around to be able to supply our community — if not in huge volumes yet, at least enough to require a farmers market — and enough people in our community who want to eat their food.

We recently celebrated our fifth birthday. Our first market was New Year’s Day 2013, the start of a month-long trial which just kept going. I’m not sure, but I think we’ve cancelled about four markets in those five years and it’s that kind of commitment and dependability that is essential to sustaining a local food system.

While we’re popular with both locals and tourists, our market doesn’t suit everyone and that’s OK. It doesn’t suit all farmers either and that’s OK too. A farmers market isn’t the answer to every challenge to a local food system’s survival, but it sure is a vital sign of a healthy local food system.

We recently joined the new Farmers Markets Alliance of NSW (aligned with the Australian Farmers’ Markets Association), because these organisations recognise the important role farmers markets play in supporting farmers, especially those who operate outside of the mass food production system.

These organisations know through research and experience that certain basic principles of operating a farmers market are essential to ensure as many farmers as possible are supported and consumers’ rights to an honest exchange are protected.

These principles are:

  • Not-for-profit — the organiser returns all profits to the market for its continued improvement.
  • No agents or resellers — the farmer (or value-adder) is behind the trestle table.
  • No non-food products — the focus is on food. $50 spent on a nice bowl is $50 not spent on food. There are a few minor exceptions to this, but let’s not get complicated here.
  • A defined geographical region — the stall holders are all located within a region defined by the market. The size of the area can vary, but a boundary is defined.

And we would add:

  • No limit to the number of primary producers (farmers) admitted — a market should encourage an open marketplace.
  • Limited inclusion of value-adding stall holders — the focus is on primary produce, or food that has been minimally processed. These value-adders should also be using local ingredients in their products to the full extent possible.

We are extremely fortunate that our location, population size and the healthy state of our local food system allows us to stick to these principles closely, but other communities aren’t so lucky. It’s possible for a farmers market to still be the real deal, even if one or two of those principles are bent a little. But in our experience, when all those boxes are ticked, they combine to create an ideal and when that ideal is achieved, a local food system will thrive.

A milestone like 5 years is an obvious opportunity to reflect on our progress. I knew we’d achieved a lot, but when I sat down to write it all out, I was again struck by how much we’ve done and how much impact our market has had. So settle in with your cuppa for a look back.

1st January 2013

Our first market was a stunning day with something like 15 stalls that were mobbed by customers eager to eat local produce. We hadn’t done any feasability studies, no market research… all we knew was that our farmers were saying they needed a farmers market and we were pretty confident that people wanted to eat local food. From that very first Tuesday afternoon, our hunch proved correct.

That eagerness of the first day has had a big influence on shaping the character of our market and — for better or worse — we are known for often having quite a charged atmosphere before the bell rings at 3.00pm.

In fact, it’s this eagerness that made the bell a necessity. Our original start time was 3.30pm, but people were turning up so much earlier, stall holders were effectively trading well before the advertised start time (and they were getting frustrated). So we brought the start time forward and introduced the bell to help the stall holders finish setting up in peace and to give more customers a chance at getting their share.

Interestingly, over the years and even just recently, I still receive the odd offering of “helpful” advice that starting at 3.00pm is “stupid” and we should start at 2.30pm, but let me take this opportunity to again say: that’s not going to happen. We have talked about this at great length and considered all the arguments. 3.00pm is the fairest time for customers and about the earliest that stall holders can be ready. Some stall holders travel up to two hours to get to Riverside Park and some stall holders harvest in the morning or use the morning to bake, for example. For the last 5 years, 3.00pm has been the most suitable time to start and so it will remain.

Yes, the start of our market can get a bit… edgy sometimes. We ask everyone to please be patient and please… be considerate.

September 2013

The Eurobodalla is full of enthusiastic gardeners and some people have veggie gardens with enormous output. Growing your own is another vital contributor to a healthy local food system and is another focus of SAGE’s mission.

We wanted to find a way for the market to support these “backyarders”, by allowing them to sell their produce at the market. After some careful thinking about what is and isn’t permitted and ensuring that the commercial growers’ businesses weren’t undermined by these home gardeners, we introduced the category of Non-Commercial Growers.

It’s not a hugely active part of our market, but it’s there for any enterprising backyarder who would like to offset some of the costs of maintaining their garden. With a very low fee to participate (and the requirement of becoming a SAGE member), it’s another potential pathway for someone with dreams of becoming a full-time grower to get started.

Also, around about this time in 2013, a couple of SAGE members started collecting excess produce from stall holders to distribute to local charities and refuges. Food grown in the SAGE Garden on Queen Street was already being distributed, but stall holders started asking if anyone wanted their leftovers and we eagerly accepted their offers. Since then, our volunteers have collected fruit & veg, and occasionally meat, bread and dairy, almost every week and shared it with local community organisations providing food to those in need or crisis.

December 2013

As I mentioned, SAGE is focused on “growing the growers” and the most important step to date has been the introduction of our Market Gardener Internship program. Kyle Levier (now Fulcrum Farm) did a smashing job as our first intern, especially as the concept was a new one for SAGE.

After a few months of finding his feet, we were very excited when he started selling food he’d grown at the SAGE Garden at the SAGE Farmers Market! It was one of those moments when we could see dots starting to join up. Since then, SAGE has trained an intern every year and each one has sold their produce at the market, as well as through other channels.

Kyle no longer sells his produce at the market, instead preferring to wholesale, but we’re very happy that he is a fully fledged market gardener and is supplying our local food system.

Also in December, our first Christmas market fell on Christmas Eve. Wow. What a market! We had something like 35 stalls and a huge crowd. The atmosphere was as joyful and celebratory as you could imagine. As markets go, this rates up there as one of the best. It was a wonderful end to a monumental year.

July 2014

Early in 2014, we received an email saying we had been nominated for the Outstanding Farmers’ Market award at the prestigious delicious. Produce Awards. When we realised that this category was judged against the best practice guidelines promoted by the Australian Farmers’ Markets Association, we decided it would be a worthwhile thing to do. So we sent in our application, never thinking for a moment that a market as young or as small as ours would stand a chance.

We were surprised and thrilled when we were announced as a finalist. Our committee chairman Stuart Whitelaw and I headed up to Sydney in the middle of July to attend the swanky awards night and to our utter astonishment, we won!

That was when we realised that we were really onto something. We were getting it right. A successful farmers market doesn’t need 100 or even 50 stalls to be the best in the country. It just needs to be the real deal. It needs to be transparently fulfilling its purpose of directly connecting farmers and eaters. With that as its foundation, a farmers market anywhere in the country can count itself as one of the best.

That award really put us on the map and made us start to take ourselves more seriously.

October 2014

As I’ve already mentioned, there is a surge of demand at the market at 3.00pm. While this is the best time to start the market on balance, given how popular the market is, it doesn’t suit people stuck at work until 5.00pm.

Enter the e-market. We knew that we should be able to create an online system that would allow people to order and pay in advance, then collect from the market. I have some experience in building websites, so I knew we could come up with something that wouldn’t cost a fortune to start up or maintain, but it would cost something and we needed money.

With some wonderful help (including from the Eurobodalla Shire Council), we secured two lots of funding to make this happen. One grant from the Foundation for Rural & Regional Renewal to build it and a later one to finish the job of training stall holders and launching it from NSW Trade & Investment under a pilot supply chain accelerator grant program.

It took several months to develop (and coin the new term “e-market”), but we got there!

February 2015

After running a trial e-market in December 2014, we finally launched to the public in February 2015. Customer curiosity saw a whopping 28 orders placed over that first weekend. That has dropped to an average of 10 orders each week, peaking in summer holidays at around 20 and occasionally dropping to as low as four, depending on the time of year.

After three years, we’re still working on making the e-market fulfil its purpose better. That’s another whole blog post on its own, but all I need to say here is that we’ve learnt a lot in those three years and we’re still committed to developing it into a significant link in the supply chain for local food.

July 2015

After winning the delicious. Produce Award the previous year, we decided to enter again. We wanted to see if we could make the finals again and we did. That was über exciting, because we got to go to another swanky event in Sydney, but we never thought we’d win two years in a row. Then we did! While the market itself was again lauded for our authenticity and commitment to farmers and community, it was clear that our innovation with the e-market was what earned us the award. That was some pretty nice validation right there.

The weekend after traveling up to Sydney, Stuart Whitelaw and I then traveled south to Daylesford to join the first ever Deep Winter Agrarian Gathering. This event is often referred to as an “unconference” to reflect its loose format of providing opportunities for farmers, connectors, educators and anyone working to improve their local food system, to network and discuss common problems and experiences.

It was a wonderful event and we came home doubly bouyant, following the elation of our delicious. win. We were quite taken aback at how much interest there was in our market at the gathering. They all wanted to know how we did it and to be honest, it was sometimes difficult to answer, because the market largely does itself. Yes, the SAGE committee got it running and establishing best practice is important, but without the farmers, the market isn’t anything and that’s where the luck comes in. We have enough farmers around to make a best practice farmers market work. Many regions don’t and the few farmers there are in those regions are finding it difficult. Once again, we appreciated what we have, living here.

October 2015

Now that we were established as one of the best markets in the country, we started to become involved in the work of representing farmers markets at a national level. As a member of the Australian Farmers’ Markets Association (the NSW body didn’t exist at this point), we were asked to participate in a pilot program for Boots for Change, an awareness raising campaign kicked off by a group of young people who came up with the concept during a Haywire event.

It was a great success and our community jumped at the chance to join in and show how they support our local food system through school displays and by simply wearing boots to recognise the contribution that family farms make to the food on our table.

The official event was held in 2016 and enjoyed great participation nationwide. At this point, funding has dried up, so the future of Boots for Change is uncertain, but we hope to see it running again in future.

November 2015

For the 12 months prior to November 2015, we rallied a group of wonderful volunteers to survey market customers at four separate markets so we could undertake our own economic impact study. We could see how the market was making a difference to stall holders, but we wanted the data to back up the anecdotes. After unsucessfully searching for a willing university to do the study, we found a DIY method available online from an organisation in the US called SEED. We tweaked it a little for our local needs and what we revealed excited everyone.

Over 12 months, our customers told us that they spent $1.77million at our market. Not only that, they spent an additional $1.46million in town while they were here and around $830k of that $1.46million was spent because they came for the market.

$3.23million injected into our local economy by a market that operates for 2-3 hours on a Tuesday afternoon. If anyone had been dismissive of us up to that point, we knew they would find it harder to do so now.

Around the same time, Eurobodalla Shire Council had retained a consultancy firm to research our local agricultural industry to prepare the Rural Lands Strategy. They were very excited when they saw those numbers. We were able to take a little of the guesswork out of their estimations of economic activity. In fact, we were able to show that small scale agriculture was generating something like double what they had estimated.

It helped bring our small scale and sustainable agriculture farms to the table with Council, who we are very pleased to say, now recognise the importance of supporting this segment of industry in our shire.

In November of 2015, we also launched our centralised pick up point for the e-market. Originally, customers had to collect their orders from the stall holders themselves, but this was proving difficult to manage, so we established a central point for customers to collect their orders, which we aggregate and box up for them. Some customers miss that interaction with the stall holder, but logistically it was a necessary step.

February 2016

Awareness around the use of plastic, in particular plastic shopping bags, is growing exponentially. We didn’t have a policy around the use of plastic bags and one was still a couple of years away, but it was at this time that we introduced our first idea to help customers avoid using or asking for a plastic shopping bag: the Bag Bank.

It’s such a simple, low hassle, self-managing thing to do. A basket on a chair with a sign that invites people to take a bag, but also to donate their unused fabric bags (obviously, not plastic). Sometimes it’s empty. Mostly, bags appear seemingly from nowhere and grateful people fossick through for a bag that suits them. I don’t know why we didn’t think of it sooner.

April 2016

This was a big month. A big, big month.

While the main purpose of starting the market was to stimulate our local food economy and support local farmers, SAGE also intended it would be a source of fundraising to aid our work in “growing the growers”. However, as we progressed, it became clear that the market was a breakeven operation. Even with just a part-time manager (not even), with the fee structure as it was, we were never going to make any financial contribution to SAGE’s primary work.

With a much larger and very successful market established for many years at the same location every Saturday, Council had set a fee for use and in the interest of equitable treatment of all market operators, are obliged to charge the same fees to everyone, no matter how different the nature of the markets might be.

A farmers market with a defined geographic region that excludes resellers and non-food vendors operates within a very limited scope for growth. We could let in any number of stall holders to reach the critical mass needed to make a profit, but that would entirely defeat our purpose of supporting local farmers.

Happily, after lobbying Council for a couple of years, we were able to demonstrate that every new stall holder at our market represented a new local business for our agriculture industry. Further, if we could realise our intention of using funds from the market to help SAGE grow more growers, the rise in economic activity would continue to increase.

They listened and now SAGE receives what is effectively a quarterly rebate on the fees the market pays to Council for the use of Riverside Park each week. That equates to something like $6,000 a year to help pay for our internship program and other training activities around developing more local growers.

We finally felt like we were achieving everything we set out to do. Or at least we were well on the way.

June 2016

While we were casting about to find someone to help us with an economic impact study, we connected with the University of Canberra who had already undertaken some research on the social impacts of farmers markets. We agreed to contribute to that research and so they conducted their own survey of our market.

When those results were released, we were excited to see that it confirmed our own findings about economic impacts, but it was most satisfying to see that it revealed what our customers valued about shopping at a farmers market: freshness, buying direct and buying local. We kind of knew that anyway, but it’s always good to see it confirmed in the data.

It also revealed that the market is impacting people’s relationship to food in the kitchen. People were reconnecting to cooking more and were a lot more conscious of waste. Well, when the food’s this good, you don’t want to waste it!

From the stall holders’ perspectives, the market provides more than just an income. The study showed that they value the social connections to each other and to their customers just as much, if not more, than receiving a fair price for their food. Incidentally, there are other studies out there that also show these benefits. This is real, people.

July 2016

We didn’t have any luck with the delicious. award this year, but we did go along to the 2nd Deep Winter Agrarian Gathering, this time in Gerringong, which was a lot easier! It also meant more of our farmers went along and it was wonderful to see how much they got out of it, especially being able to meet other farmers doing the same things and facing the same challenges, all over the country.

Once again, we generated quite a bit of interest, in particular around our e-market. Small scale farmers are very interested in how to establish efficient and affordable distribution networks and the e-market has the potential to grow into an important hub in a new, emerging network.

This event and the Facebook group set up around it has become a fantastic hub of another kind: for connecting and sharing knowledge.

April 2017

In another development for the e-market, we announced a partnership with a local business, Rustic Pantry Wholefoods. As our local region’s climate makes growing grains and many other dry good products difficult or impossible, by partnering with Rustic Pantry, we can offer a way for customers to source products that aren’t and likely won’t ever be available at the market. Rustic Pantry researches all of their products, so aligning ourselves with a business that is similarly ethically minded makes a lot of sense. It’s also another way to support our local economy.

Customers can shop at the e-market, then shop online at Rustic Pantry and pick up both their orders from the market. Not only that, we also introduced a delivery service to Moruya and Broulee/Mossy Point. The features and services the e-market now offers just keep growing.

August 2017

The delicious. awards were a bit later this year and — yay! — we were announced as a finalist again! We were very excited by the prospect of winning 3 times in 4 years, but the competition was also the highest possible standard, so it was no surprise to us when Harvest Launceston (our pick) was announced the winner. The swanky awards night was in Melbourne this time, but it was a little too hip for us (couldn’t hold a conversation in the noise), so we called it a night early on. That was a shame, as these events are a rare opportunity to swap stories with farmers and other market organisers.

January 2018

Which brings us to turning five. Really, no one can believe it’s already been five years. It’s also hard to believe everything that’s happened in that time, even when I write it all down like this. But it has been five years and we have done all that with almost no budget. We’ve had some indispensible (and often highly skilled) help over the years and all of it given voluntarily. There are some wonderfully generous people in our community.

I always feel we could be doing more, but looking back, I think we’ve already achieved more than we imagined we would at that first market on New Year’s Day 2013.

Now, in March 2018, we’ve just announced that our market is single-use plastic bag free (unless required by food safety regulations… ugh, there’s always something) and we’ll keep addressing the use of plastic at the market in general. One step at a time.

We’re also very focused on making sure the e-market reaches its full potential.

We’ve seen changes in our stall holders. We’ve seen businesses thrive — even to the point of outgrowing our market and moving on — and we’ve seen new businesses start up and join the market all the time, eager to find direct access to appreciative customers. They don’t all stay, but regardless of the outcome, the market has served its purpose in helping that stall holder decide what works for them. That’s why we often refer to our market as a “crucible” or an “incubator” for small business.

Personally, managing the market has been the most rewarding work I’ve ever done. The stall holders are all stirling people who support our ethos and accept our strict rules. They’ve welcomed us onto their farms and into their businesses when we’ve gone to see their operations ourselves — a privilege we don’t take for granted. When differences arise, we have (almost always) dealt with each other reasonably and respectfully. We are merely human, afterall.

And that’s what makes our market so special, in the end. We are a group of humans, collectively striving to enhance the wellbeing of our community. What unites us far outweighs any grievances we may harbour. We all put the market first. As long as we keep doing that, the next 5 years, 10 years, 15 years will be even better.

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