Michael Champion is rolling a mottled lemon around in his farmers’ hands. It’s not a beautiful lemon by any stretch of the imagination, but there’s a reason he’s particularly proud of his.
“If you look at my lemons – you’ve picked out particularly rough ones – but I was more looking at the colour, so they’re fully coloured,” he explains, “You go and look at my neighbour’s lemons over there – they’re all perfect, evenly coloured … I can bring perfect looking lemons, but they would not be yellow, they would be turning yellow.”
A crate of shiny yellow lemons sits happily unaware at a nearby stall at Carriageworks Farmers’ Markets in Sydney’s Eveleigh.
“Why would you wax one box of citrus? If it’s coming off your private tree or you’ve got trees there, why would you wax it?”
The problem with the waxed lemons to which Champion is referring is that the presence of the wax strongly suggests that the vendor selling them hasn’t grown them, despite being marketed as such.
Among those in the industry, it’s known as reselling — where a farmer will purchase fruit, vegetables or meat from a wholesaler and sell it on at an inflated price as their own at more artisanal markets — and it’s a problem many farmers SBS spoke with acknowledged is rife within the Sydney food basin.
“Reselling has happened in farmers’ markets from day one, we’re well aware of it,” Chair of the Australian Farmers’ Market Association Jane Adams says.
“The temptation is there, of course, to backfill, which is to say maybe some of the stallholders grow 50 per cent, 60 per cent of what’s on their stall, but they feel they’ve got to offer a shopper a full shopping basket deal and they may then put produce on their stall that they’ve sourced elsewhere.”
More than 170 farmers’ markets around Australia are recognised by the AFMA, with 54 of those in NSW and 84 in Victoria alone, however not any vendor can trade in an AFMA-approved market.
Unlike community markets, where you might find anything from craft and vintage items, to condiments and fresh produce, the AFMA will only back authentic farmers markets that strictly purvey “farm-origin and associated value-added specialty foods”.
Farmers’ markets cut out the middle man with a view to preserving farmland and sustainable farming practices along the way. The idea is that customers get to buy the produce directly from the person who made it.
And while the AFMA charter states that it will not endorse “any person who sources and resells produce from another party including a farmer, where monies are exchanged with the intent to resell that produce to consumers”, many farmers said that lax enforcement of the charter meant that an increasing number of market stallholders were undercutting the system, unbeknown to shoppers.
“I’ve seen people go out of the industry because of that very thing,” lamb farmer George Hamilton from Mudgee says.
“I can’t tell you how many people have asked for shanks (at Carriageworks) today – there’s only so many shanks on an animal – so I’ve got ten lambs here, which is like 20 shanks, of which 10 of those shanks are either on the leg or used somewhere else, and then there’s another 10 left over. So that’s how you can tell a real farmer, who’s (selling) the whole body all at once.
“Some so-called farmers … could sell shanks all day long, so how can they do that? It’s not hard to work it out.”
Adams believes in transparency about the provenance of the food insofar as it is made clear to the consumer where the produce they are purchasing comes from, which means that if a vendor chooses to sell apples grown on his neighbour’s farm at the markets, that’s fine – so long as it is made clear to the customer.
But it also means that independent farmers like Champion, who are restricted by season and resources, may struggle to compete against farmers offering a wider range of produce.
“The elephant in the room is Flemington Market. The traders … have no particular scruples about where it goes as long as it’s sold,” Champion says.
Andrew Muscat has one of the largest stalls at the Eveleigh market. A plethora of fruit, vegetables and herbs flow over the table edges and customers clamber around one another for the perfect head of broccoli or bunch of dutch carrots.
For Muscat, a farmer from Pitt Town in north west Sydney, it’s about being able to give a helping hand to his hard-working neighbours by selling their yield alongside his own, as well as being able to offer his large customer base the broadest selection possible — even if that means filling in gaps with produce from Flemington.
“(The) customers always want something else,” he says.
“Sweet potato or parsnips … they’re better grown in other areas than our own area. We can’t possibly grow every single thing, we’re pretty busy as it is.”
Victoria has already moved to stamp out the problem with an official accreditation scheme run by the Victorian Farmers Markets’ Association whereby farmers purchase a license to trade at certified farmers’ markets, however it has proven difficult to monitor and enforce.
“One of the challenges … has been the administration of it, because, if you think about it … the cost of actually accrediting all those markets and all those farmers and stallholders is actually beyond the means of the farmers’ market sector,” Adams says.
“It’s actually quite a challenge financially.”
While many farmers were at pains to assert that as far as the farmers’ markets around Sydney go, Carriageworks was certainly one of the better ones, they say there’s a number of other ways customers can determine that what they are purchasing is the real deal, the first of which is to ask the vendor.
Livestock farmer Greg Newell from Manning Valley in the North Coast of NSW added that if customers wanted to check where their livestock originated from, they could also ask for a copy of the kill sheet.
“It clearly states who owns the animal, through the NLIS data system, which is (the) National Livestock Identification System that each animal has, and from there, it lines with the property number, which is called the PIC (property identification code) … which identifies who the owner of the animal is.”
And for those less game, Adams suggests a somewhat easier way to pick out your genuine farmers from your resellers.
“If you spot a banana in a farmers’ market south – I’d say south of Sydney, you realise – because sometimes people, they will drive from Coffs Harbour to Sydney, so that can be legitimate and authentic, but if you spot a banana much further south, then you can be fairly sure that the person who sold it to you didn’t grow it.
“And that’s what I say to shoppers – the banana is a good barometer.”