The following post appeared hidden on LJ in 2009 as it was part of my journalism degree portfolio.
This weekend I undertook my second visit to Belper’s farmers market. It has been nearly a year since my last visit and it was good to see some familiar faces. Surprisingly the market has grown a little bit since my last visit with the inclusion of three new stalls. Furthermore, it seems that the popularity has grown lately rather than reduced as would have been expected in the current economic climate.
Indeed, Belper’s other local food gem, the award winning Fresh Basil delicatessen was just as busy as I remembered. A sign that all things are still ticking over nicely while other consumer areas are having to tighten their belts.
It would seem that though rising grain and feed prices are forcing independent producers to raise their food prices to record levels and the supermarkets with their “Pile it high sell it cheap” are distracting consumers with their consistently low prices the popularity of local food retailers is still burgeoning.
But what concerns me is the insistence of some purveyors of local food to stock items that are clearly not locally produced. I’m talking about the Tyrell’s and the Bay Tree Preserves of the world here. To me it seems that some of these local food retailers are stocking brands that are becoming the behemoths of the independent retail world. During my on going tour of farm shops nationally I’ve noticed the same four or five brands recurring. Surely if I travel to the delightful farmer run Tebay services on the M6 I’d expect to see the delights of Cumbrian fare. Jams, chutneys and sauces produced by Cumbrian food producers. Indeed I would, but there, on the shelves are these “foodie” brands.
Perhaps it is instilled in our culture to stay loyal to particular brands. Perhaps these are farm shop brands we should now become familiar with much in the same way we do of Heinz or Pedigree Chum. Or perhaps it’s because we’re too corrupted by supermarket doctrine to shy away from familiar brands. I couldn’t say.
However this fascination with brands concerns me. Where do newcomers get a look in? It may be that finding a distributor is tricky for smaller scale producers. Moreover, it may be that the smaller scale producers find it difficult to produce their wares in the quantities that retailers demand. But isn’t that the ethos behind local food? Food produced locally by small scale independent food smiths. While I’m not expecting the local WI to be producing jams on a Hartley’s scale, I do expect to be able to sample artisan jams depending on the area I am in.
This phenomenon is not only restricted to the produce. Take farmers markets for example. This month I’ve been to five farmers markets in the region. One artisan meat producer had a stall at all five of these markets, at one market it was at least 90 miles from it’s home base.
Now I’m not saying that this is a bad thing. What I am saying is I am concerned. I worry that if this trend continues unabated we will be in a similar situation as we are with independent beers. The smaller breweries being bought by the brewing giants only to be closed in an apparent effort to reduce the competition. Ask any passing Tom, Dick or Harry to give a real ale name and they’ll probably tell you something by Shepherds Neame or Adnams. Where once these were struggling breweries, now they produce ales on such a vast scale that differences in quality and flavour are apparent. Are we in the same situation with real food? Is real food in danger of being clouded by the success of the few at the detriment to the many? Only time will tell.