Article by Nicholas Kennedy, Communications Volunteer at Melbourne Farmers Markets.

We’re having a bit of a moment in Australia. We’re becoming more aware of when our food comes from and the context surrounding it. Sustainability; both industrial and in the home, is a political and economic priority for more and more people. Farmers markets, just like those run by Melbourne Farmers Markets, are growing and expanding.

Going to a farmers market is, for many, a wholesome experience. The outdoors, the smiling faces, the dirt on the potatoes – it’s hard to not fall in love with the simplicity of it. An escape from the fluorescent lit aisles of Coles & Woolworths is undertaken by a growing proportion of shoppers. But, as much as you can take the shopper out of the supermarket, can you take the supermarket out of the shopper?

In a recent blog post, ‘Facing disappointment in a local food system’, on the SAGE Farmers Market website, market manager Kate Raymond took the time to respond to a recent letter from a tourist to the Morouya region. The sender, John, had attended the market with the intent of stocking up on produce for the remainder of their trip.

Unfortunately, he arrived to a market of….ye gods! Empty tables! Low stock! No produce to be had! That, combined with apparently having sung the market’s praises to his travelling companion, culminated in a bit of a market misfire. Eventually, he had to simply get what he needed from a local supermarket. A big embarrassment for John.

John, maybe.

Now, there are certainly expectations that can be placed on a farmers market – generally, one thinks of fresh produce of some description. Kate understands this, writing in her post that she couldn’t blame John for being disappointed.

As she explains it, arriving to a market as empty as John’s is not normal, but two words explain a large portion of why things like this sometimes happen: winter & drought. This is simply a fact of the food systems that we have in Australia. However, Kate also takes the opportunity to touch on some of the human stories that are behind that disappointing market.

Producers finally taking holidays between two or ten (!) years in the making, experiencing family tragedies, seeing a change in land circumstances, struggling with water access, the list of reasons and explanations can go on. At face value, this doesn’t change anything for John or any other market goer, they’re still left without produce, but an attempt to understand the systems beyond the food that ends up in your market bag is an important step to take for many consumers.

Attending a farmers market isn’t simply a game of peekaboo with producers; they don’t disappear when you leave the market, nor do the pressures of agriculture and business.

The state of constant availability in our supermarkets is indeed convenient – especially considering many people feel they have less and less time to dedicate to food – but that availability leaves us without cause to think of what might be going on behind the scenes. The strawberries are always there, so everything must be fine, right? Who knows what went into getting them here smack bang in the middle of winter, so better not to worry about it.

Experiencing the peaks and valleys of produce availability, alongside the producers themselves, can impart an appreciation that these food systems exist at all! It’s just another part of the knowledge that can be gained from interacting with farmers directly. However, that perspective can easily be compromised by never breaking out of the supermarket mentality, never adapting to changing conditions, and never being aware of what is actually happening further down the production line.

Farmers (if they’ve got the time) can tell you all about varieties of fruit and veg, good growing techniques, things to look out for, and countless other tips & tricks that relate to what they grow; be it greens, apples, citrus, whatever! Chances are, they’ll even have an idea or two of what to do with the produce once it’s in your kitchen; preparation techniques, recipe ideas, and ways to increase the lifespan of your food.

So, get down to your next farmers market and talk to your farmers; find out what their situation is, what their struggles are. They are an endless source of information because they live this, every day. A farmers market is more than just a source of fantastic, fresh produce: it’s a library.

Jump over to our Markets page to check out all upcoming markets, and which one is closest to you. See you on market day!