The first farmers’ market started in Victoria in 1998 in the Yarra Valley.  There are now at least 180 farmer’s markets across Australia, around half of them (77) in Victoria (where I live).1  In the future, this number could increase to 600 or more.2  So:

  • What is a farmers’ market?
  • Why should you consider going to a farmers’ market?
  • What are the problems with current farmer’s markets?

What is a farmers’ market?

There is no legal definition of “farmers’ market” in Australia.  So, any market can call itself a farmers’ market if they wish.  But, in practice, there are three characteristics that define them:

  1. Restricted to food and food-related produce: it is generally agreed that farmers’ markets should be strictly restricted to food-related (and, sometimes, plant-related) stalls, and it is this which distinguishes farmers’ markets from community and craft markets.

  2. No re-sellers: the stallholders should only be selling food that they have grown/made themselves.

  3. Local stallholders: the stallholders should be ‘local’. Different people have different views about what ‘local’ should mean but, in Victoria at least, it usually means from within the State.

vfmaIn Victoria, these three rules have been formalised by The Victorian Farmers’ Market Association (VFMA).  Any stallholder who abides by the three rules can apply to be ‘accredited’ and any market where 75% or more of its stallholders are accredited can itself apply to be accredited.  Around half of the 77 farmer’s markets in Victoria are formally accredited by the VFMA.

Most farmers’ markets are run by voluntary organisations who operate in the suburb in which the market is located.

Most farmers’ markets happen once a month, on a Saturday or Sunday morning, and have between 25 and 50 stalls.

Some farmers’ markets give preference to ‘very local’ stallholders.  For example, at Eltham Farmers’ Market (the market I am involved with), more than half of the stallholders are from the Nillumbik local authority area or its immediately bordering authority areas.

Why should you consider going to a farmers’ market?

mkdAccording to a 2010 Parliamentary Inquiry3:

  • Fresh food (i.e. fresher than that available from other sources): clearly the leading reason.

  • Chemical-free food: most local farmers use few, if any, chemicals or pesticides and many are certified organic.

  • Food from a known source: you know who grew/made it and you can talk with them (and many stallholders like chatting!).

  • wicking_bed_3Reduced packaging: in most cases, the food comes unpackaged and you put it directly into your shopping bag. Note that the transport implications of local food are more controversial.

  • Supporting local food producers: a stronger reason at some markets than others.

In my experience, however, there are additional social reasons why people go to their local farmers’ market.  simon_wright_2Quite simply, it is an enjoyable day out: you will probably meet some other people that you know, you will see (and may be able to taste) some foods that you don’t usually eat, you can talk to the stallholders, there may be other food-related activities (food swaps, cooking demonstrations, etc), and there is often live music or some other form of entertainment.

What are the problems with current farmers’ markets?

As most markets are monthly, but most fresh food only lasts for a week or two, it is not clear how the market should fit in with the public’s general patterns of food shopping.  Should they visit a different market each week for their fruit and veggies, go to normal shops 3 weeks in 4, or have a different diet 1 week in 4?  Clearly, it would be desirable for a market to be weekly but this is not easy to achieve: it is financially problematic, it is difficult to get the stallholders, and it puts a large burden on the (usually voluntary) organisers.  At Eltham, we have compromised by being fortnightly, and with some of the (non fruit and veggie) stallholders only coming to half of the markets.

Because the farmers and food makers at farmers’ market are always operating on a small scale, they do not have the economies of scale of large scale farming and factories and their food is typically not cheap.  Related to this, the clientele is sometimes predominantly middle class.  But fresh food and farmers’ markets should be for everyone.  In the USA, they have addressed this issue, at least in some of their urban markets, by philanthropic schemes to subsidise the prices for some people, but this has not yet happened (as far as I am aware) anywhere in Australia.  If anyone would like to work with me to try and make this a reality on a pilot basis in Victoria, please email me.

Whilst it is relatively easy for farmers’ market to break even on an ongoing basis, they do require a substantial amount of upfront capital.  At Eltham, for example, we spent almost $30,000 on equipment, marketing, signage, etc.  Two-thirds of this money was provided by generous State Government grants but this grant scheme is ceasing at the end of 2014/15.

In conclusion, if you have never been to a farmers’ market, it is really worth an exploratory visit.  For most of you, there will be one near you.  For a list of farmers’ markets, together with their suburb, go to the Australian Farmers’ Market Association website.

Guy Palmer is one of the organisers of Eltham Farmers’ Market, which is a VFMA-accredited market which takes place on the 2nd and 4th Sundays of each month. He is also a member of Local Food Connect, an organisation which concerns itself with all matters food in Nillumbik, Banyule and the rest of North East Melbourne. As part of these roles, he has developed a directory of local food producers, maintains a calendar of local food events and is actively involved in local community gardening, as well as growing his own veggies and fruit. Inter alia, he is also the webmaster for this (i.e. SGA’s) website.

Photos: Courtesy of Eltham Farmers’ Market


1. The Australian Farmers’ Market Association website lists 180 markets, including 77 in Victoria and 46 in NSW.
2. According to USDA, Agricultural Market Service, Farmers’ Market Surveys, there were 8,000 farmers’ markets in the USA in 2014. Per population, this equates to 600 for Australia.
3. Inquiry into Farmers’ Markets, Outer Suburban/Interface Services and Development Committee, Parliament of Victoria, 2010.