PEOPLE – From Industrial Revolution To Farmers’ Markets

14 Jun 2002

The story of nineteenth-century Britain’s industrial growth is the stuff of myth. Mills lined the country’s rivers, furnaces blackened its towns, and mines bored down to the earth’s deepest strata, spewing forth salt, coal, and ore. Britain was 50 years ahead of the rest of Europe during its Industrial Revolution, and the country also led Europe in the mechanization and industrialization of the food supply network. Europe’s first industrial producers of cheeses, sausages, and canned goods were flourishing in Britain by the late 1880s. The first industrially canned foods in the world were produced there along the banks of the River Thames; the country succeeded in commercializing the French invention and produced enough of the stuff to feed Britain’s army in the First World War. With such vast industrialization and intense development, the Britain’s daily fresh food markets and local food supply networks disintegrated, and the country’s precociously ‘modern’ approach to food production took their place. Today, Britain has one of Europe’s most industrialized food production systems. Less than 10% of the population of the British Isles lives in rural areas, while only 2% of employed Brits work in agriculture and food production, the lowest percentage in all of Europe.

When American Nina Planck opened a farmers’ market in the Islington neighborhood of London in 1997, it was the city’s first regular outdoor farmers’ market since before the Second World War. Planck grew up in a farming family in Virginia, and worked in journalism in Brussels and London before returning to farming (albeit selling not growing). Though London’s first market opened in the fearful months when news of mad cow and dioxin scares filled the newspapers, Plank’s enterprise was a great success. She opened three markets in as many months, and then started the London Farmers’ Markets company. Plank’s company – now with a staff of three – locates spaces for farmers’ markets, organizes the participation of farmers in the various markets, and sets the criteria for participation in the markets. London Farmers’ Market now hosts ten weekly markets around the city. This year, the number of British towns that have regular farmers’ markets almost reached 400 – double that of in the past year.

Although the growth of farmers’ markets in London and around England has boomed in the past year, success has not come easily. The fledgling farmers’ markets had to convince people to shop as they hadn’t shopped for a century. At the opening of one London farmers’ market, Prince Charles was on hand, remarking that, ‘this market is good for everyone…it will foster greater understanding between the town and the country by helping to reconnect people to the land’. This reconnection to the land is difficult, however, after a century of distance. ‘We have had to reintroduce the local market for the local products,’ says Planck, which has also meant the re-education of consumers about what their local products are and how best to eat them. To that end, the London Farmers’ Market web site includes a listing of what fruits and vegetables are in season on regional farms and how to prepare them, and encourages the farmers who sell at the market to explain to consumers how to use their produce.

In re-establishing the tradition of producers gathering to sell their wares, the London Farmers’ Market company has chosen to establish very structured guidelines for participation. Farmers wishing to sell their wares at the London markets must grow or produce their food not more than 100 miles from the M25 orbital that encircles the city and they must sell exclusively foods that they grow or produce on their property. This helps reduce competition between farmers at the market – and allows individual growers to specialize in what they know best. Someone from the London Farmers’ Markets company personally visits every farm that participates in the markets – so they can’t pass of their neighbor’s apples for their own. Farmers who work with the London Farmers’ Market company pay a fee to join, and pay a weekly quota based on their sales. In addition, representatives of each farm are required to staff the stands at the market, and are not allowed to send paid employees who might not be well informed about the foods they sell.
Planck is full of ideas for the future. She imagines a time when doctors will dose out a ‘farmers’ market prescription’ for good eating to their patients. Another of her early plans – to make farmers’ markets available to all income groups – has just come to fruition. In the low-income area of Bromley-by-Bow, a local government body has granted almost £30,000 of vouchers to local families to purchase produce from the weekly farmers’ market.

The success of British farmers’ markets will depend in part on the rejection by consumers of the type of industrialized foods that Britain itself helped create. But the markets themselves will have to be flexible in their approach to a new post-industrial market. This means orientating themselves towards a new generation of urban and ‘fast’ consumers. ‘The farmers’ market must be conceived as an ‘urban event’,’ says Planck. Hence not just a gathering of farmers, but an occasion orchestrated to satisfy urban consumers. This means the scheduling of markets on weekends, and in spaces near public transport and in central areas.
With this new approach, and with the help of companies like London Farmers’ Markets, England’s farmers are coming back to the metropolis after all these years. This time, everyone is hoping they’re here to stay.

Anya Fernald, winner of a Watson Fellowship for the study of artisan cheese in Europe and Africa in 1998, has worked for the Consorzio Ricerca Filiera Lattiero-Casearia in Sicily. She currently works for Slow Food.

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