This is Fraser of Old Mill Road BioFarm during the market’s “Hungry Gap” of spring 2013, but the gap in 2018 has started in July, thanks to drought and a perfect storm of other circumstances.
Getting feedback is a funny thing. For every comment saying there’s too much of one thing, there’s another comment saying there’s not enough. The funny thing is, both comments are equally valid. It’s an odd reality that has shades of Schrödinger about it; that two opposing things can both be valid at the same time, but it’s a reality we at the market deal with all the time.
It’s the challenge of balancing supply with demand and it never ends. Trying to reconcile the needs of the consumer with the needs of the farmer, which are often in conflict, is a never ending process of compromise and communication.
In our recent SAGE membership survey, a comment was made that we often voice things too negatively. OK, as someone who often writes and speaks for SAGE (mostly concerning the market), I’m happy to take that on board. But as you might expect, during this last week, I received an excellent piece of feedback from a visitor passing through indicating the opposite. At our last committee meeting, we discussed this visitor’s email and my response and we decided it was worth sharing, as it provides some interesting and useful information about the state of our local food system over the next few months.
Here’s what I’m talking about:
Last week on a planned trip down the coast from Wollongong to Bega, I made a point of stopping in at the SAGE Market in the hope of picking up fresh produce for my 3 days away from home. I had deliberately not shopped at the Supermarket so that I could obtain fresh from the farm produce and importantly, spend my dollars supporting those who grow and sell their own produce.
Having arrived at the market around 4pm, you can’t imagine my disappointment in finding not a single stall with any fresh vegetables left. Having talked up the opportunity of buying fresh organic produce to my travelling companion, the only thing I left with was the egg on my face.
From all the publicity, emails and other online material, I had high expectations of many stalls with abundant product to sell. All I saw was Fish, Eggs and the usual conserves. Did I mention the bored farmers sitting at empty stalls or on the beck of their utes? As a consequence, I was forced to visit a Supermarket in Bega to obtain veggie supplies for my trip. Truly disappointing!
So, is this normal? I would certainly find it difficult to waste my time stopping in at the Market on future trips and it’s very unlikely I could recommend it to anyone else.
When I first read this, I couldn’t blame him for being disappointed. Why wouldn’t you be? I’m sure there are others like John who don’t take the time to let us know about their experience, but I was very glad he did, as it gave me an opportunity to respond and hopefully provide some insight into how local food systems work.
Here is my response:
Thank you for your email and the opportunity to respond.
In a few words: no, this is not normal.
To further explain, winter is definitely a slower time of year for vegetables and there is currently a drought. Those are the factors that influence all vegetable growers, however, there have been a a number of circumstances affecting individual growers that have combined to create quite a severe vegetable shortage this winter.
One of the largest growers took a 7-week holiday with their children that they had been planning for two years. That meant they wound down production (a family member brought some produce to market while they were away) and now they have returned, they have very little in their gardens to harvest and it will take the next couple of months to get production back up to regular levels. They were at last week’s market with a very small harvest, but will be absent for at least a few weeks now.
Another grower and his wife took their first holiday in 10 years and organised a farm-sitter to keep their garden in production. However, that farm-sitter experienced a family tragedy which took him away from the market garden, meaning this grower’s production also fell way below intended levels and it will take him a couple of months to get the garden at full production as well. They were absent last week and will be attending fortnightly for a while.
Two other growers were on leased land and they have both had to move on due to changes in the landlords’ circumstances, so we have lost them altogether, at least for the forseeable future.
Another new grower is still only small scale and really struggling with access to water, so she is sporadic.
The hydroponic growers are struggling with the cold to get their seedlings to do anything at all.
Another elderly couple who have a small market garden (because farmers don’t retire) have been having repeated problems with a “lifestyle” farmer’s cows breaking in and eating their crops. They were there last week, however, their production is also a lot less than would normally be the case.
Another grower is still establishing his garden from scratch, requiring a lot of fencing infrastructure due to wildlife eating everything, so is sporadic in his ability to bring produce to the market. He has been attending weekly for a while, but last week was his first week absent and he will be for a while.
Last week was also the 2nd week of a two-week holiday for another grower, so they were also absent. They are currently the only local vegetable grower at full production and they put their short family holiday with their children on hold until the other growers had returned from their 7-week holiday, so there would be at least some vegetables available.
Yes, last week was dire as far as available fruit & vegetables, but these are the vagaries that small, local food systems must ride out. We are very fortunate that our local population understand that a local food system is made up of people, not factories, and accept that there are times of bounty and excess (there are many weeks when I see stall holders grumbling about not selling everything) and also times of scarcity.
I’m sorry you chanced upon a time of scarcity when you visited. I hope you will visit again at another time of year, so that you might be able to compare the two visits and get a better picture of what our local food system can produce when conditions are favourable. I would also recommend you arrive at 3pm, as even when we are overflowing with fruit & vegetables, they are in high demand and sell out quickly.
And later I remembered that I’d forgotten about another vegetable grower who will also be absent for a couple of months, as they live at a higher altitude, so their garden has come to almost a complete stop.
I also should have told John about our e-market, which is the best way to get a decent shop of vegetables at this time of year. Order and pay online in advance between midday Friday and midday Monday, then collect your order from the SAGE stall. It effectively allows you to avoid queuing, at least for some products. If you can’t get to the market at 3pm, then you should be scoping the e-market every weekend to see what’s available.
While we acknowledge that it is important to keep our messages positive, as we can see from John’s feedback, there’s no point in trying to roll the proverbial in glitter either. The way I see it, our local food system is one of the strongest in the country and that is about as positive as you can get.
The fact is, until we can resolve problems like access to land and water, especially during a drought like this one (which is really bad, in case you didn’t know yet), we’re going to be faced with times like this. That’s why SAGE exists.
The fact is, until we’ve got more growers established to help cover the inevitable gaps that open up, we’re going to be faced with times like this. That’s why SAGE exists.
And as uncomfortable as personal responsibility might make us feel, the fact is, until our commercial vegetable growing industry is bigger, if we want to eat locally grown vegetables, we might have to think about planting more in our own gardens for winter harvests. That’s also why SAGE exists.
A reality of scarcity and disappointment can easily also be a reality of abundance and optimism. It all depends on how you look at it.