Farmers markets move into the digital space

Farmers markets move into the digital space

Angela Youngman
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Consumers collect food and drink at the Food Assembly
Consumers collect food and drink at the Food Assembly

Instead of spending their weekends hanging around at a farmers market and waiting for customers to come to them, growers have bitten the bullet and begun trading via new-style online farmers markets. Two very different versions of the concept have emerged, as Produce Business UK finds out

Food Assemblies

Originating in France, Food Assemblies have expanded rapidly and are now active in several countries. At the time of writing, there were officially 752 Food Assemblies in France, 71 in the UK, 73 in Belgium, 46 in Germany, 92 in Italy and 57 in Spain.

The simple aim is to connect consumers and producers, thus encouraging local trade. All participating producers must be local and sell nothing that has been grown or produced outside the designated locality. Each assembly operates autonomously with an appointed leader organising the venue, signing up producers and promoting the event.

Consumers can buy produce online from the producers, then collect their shopping during a two-hour time slot at the Food Assembly venue each week. 

The producers side of the bargain is that they bring the goods to the event, and are able to engage with customers as they hand over the merchandise.  No money changes hands, as everything has been pre-paid. 

Pubs, hotels and community centres are among the more usual collection venues. 

Haddington Food Assembly

Bryden McKinnie is the organiser of the Haddington Food Assembly in East Lothian. He set up this Assembly in May 2016. “I produce honey and was looking for a place to sell direct to the public. I visited the Edinburgh Food Assembly and found they already had a supplier. So I decided to set one up for East Lothian. I had a directory of local producers, people who work from home in micro businesses, found a venue and used social media to promote it.

“We currently have 680 members. It is free to join and I have managed to get sponsorship from NFU Mutual. Sales have more than doubled since we first opened.”

McKinnie believes that a key reason for the success of Food Assemblies is that, in his opinion, consumers are increasingly feeling disconnected with the traditional supermarkets. “There are the fake farms, the branding that gives the impression that goods are hand made when they are not, and [this does not meet] the desire of the consumer for true artisan food. This is a reflection of the slow food movement, with people wanting to enjoy discovering food.”

The range of merchandise on sale is extensive, ranging from fresh produce, ready meals, to cheese, honey and cakes – effectively the same type of mix that can be found in a farmer’s market.

Haddington Food Assembly has its own website, and runs regular promotions and extra activities such as tasting sessions. Plans have already been laid for a special tasting session in September, and a big session before Christmas.

Consumer response has been extremely positive, and growers and producers and seeing clear evidence that people will buy local if it is provided. McKinnie says: “We have an organic farm company which thought they might sell eight or nine lettuces a week. He now does over £200 a week. Fred’s Cottage Kitchen is a new business run by a chef developing ready meals. He thought that a food assembly would be a good way of testing the market offering soups, quiches and Spanish tortillas.  It is working very well and proving a good way for him to build a business.”

Mike Callender of East Coast Organic, which takes part in the Haddington Food Assembly has found that it is proving a useful trading method. “We thought it was a great way for customers to have produce picked fresh, specially for them, within a few hours of the collection time,” he says. “Even with a farmers market, the produce is picked the day before. There is also no wastage, which you may get with a market as everything is pre-ordered.”

Food Assembly vegetables on display

Food Assembly vegetables on display

McKinnie is already investigating ways of developing the market, potentially opening another elsewhere in East Lothian. “I aim to keep it exciting and changing to help it grow. Not everyone is on social media, so I will be expanding the network, talking to organisations like the WI, Rotary Club and doing advertising.

“People like the concept; being able to buy a ready meal that was made the same day or eat salads that were growing that morning. Thirty minutes sometimes is all that it takes. People pick up their orders and are on their way home.”

Fresh-Range

In the West Country, Richard Osborne is the co-ordinator of a slightly different online version of a farmers market. Fresh-Range supplies not only consumers but organisations across the West of England. 

Osborne says: “Food Assemblies and Fresh-Range both seek to create direct links between producers and consumers, showing where goods were produced providing full transparency. 

“Where we differ from a Food Assembly is in the method. Fresh-Range has a full service offering and we deliver direct to the home or business. Producers deliver to us, we collate and deliver to the customer. We can deliver in specific slots or at any time daily for a small extra payment.

“Our system is designed for people with busy lives, who find it hard to attend a market at specific times each week. We collect, collate and distribute to potentially one million people.

“Food Assemblies are hyper local, while we work on a regional basis linking more producers and suppliers to provide greater opportunities and convenience for both consumer and producer,” says Osborne.

“What we are delivering is a quite unique service combining retail, public sector, foodservice, consumers and private sector catering. Our food is fresh because it truly comes from the source.”

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