Culture House Daily

The snobbery of farmers’ markets makes me want to run to the nearest Morrisons

24 July 2014

My friend Cathy once paid £9 for a small bag of green beans from an organic deli because she ‘wanted to support local businesses’. But this shop, in trendy Crouch End (a leafy, north London suburb), was actually part of a chain of organic rip-off merchants, filled with over-priced fruit and vegetables half eaten by snails. The owners were raking it in from idiots who had this mad idea that the shop was there to ‘serve the community’. It existed to make the owners very rich off the back of folk with more money than sense.

Ditto farmers’ markets. A few minutes walk from the green bean shop is the place where the urban, monied middle classes go to cruise other urban, monied middle classes. These people, often affecting the appearance of country-dwellers, are so pleased with themselves for buying food with no carbon footprint. The sellers crow about the fact that the cabbages were picked fresh from Kent that morning. But so what? No one can tell the difference between that and a plastic-wrapped offering from Aldi if it were stripped of its packaging.

There is a sense from some farmer’s market devotees that they are somehow doing the environment, and poor people, the world of good by spending obscene amounts of easily earned cash on a bag of posh tomatoes. They can be heard bragging, as they queue for their double-filtered Ethiopian coffee, that they are handing their dosh straight into the hands of those tasked with providing food for the nation.

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But these farmers are nothing like the hard-working, hard-up manual labourers that struggle to make ends meet. These are the public school-educated fancy-pant lot who are appealing to snobbery and elitism. For many of them, it’s just a hobby. And the customers are as smug and self-satisfied a group as you will ever meet, walking around looking pleased with themselves because they’re doing their shopping outdoors and clutching natural-fibre reusable bags, rather than enclosed with commoners buying battery-farmed eggs.

Pretty much everything is wildly overpriced, ergo, only over-privileged, time-rich individuals can afford to buy it. I could take along a load of crap in a hessian basket woven by impoverished Guatemalan peasants, and clear up within five minutes. If the actual peasant was selling it directly it wouldn’t work; those peddling goods at markets have to be as posh as the people they are serving. But half the time the customers do not see themselves as doing the food shopping; they think they’re saving the planet and securing a place in secular heaven.

All normal shopping protocols are obsolete in famers’ markets. The more mud on the potatoes, misshapen the apples and cracked the terracotta pots the better. The fake farmers selling you the tat are inevitably rude and superior, managing to give you the impression that you should be grateful that they arrived in their shiny Chelsea tractor packed with food you could buy for an eighth of the price in your local supermarket – yes, that much-derided place that makes it easier for older, disabled and hard-up people to buy a weekly shop and that actually provides jobs for people who need them.

The sheer snobbery of the market dwellers makes me want to run to the nearest Bargain Booze – via Morrisons. Maybe these people will think twice about eating organic when they find themselves out of a job, or facing a pay cut. Certainly, those selling the swag will be laughing all the way to their Tuscan farmhouse for a well-deserved break from ripping everyone else off.

Julie Bindel is the author of Straight Expectations: What Does It Mean To Be Gay Today? (Guardian Books)

Follow Julie Bindel on Twitter @bindelj

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  • Gwangi

    I agree absolutely.

    In France or Italy, any local market will have decent local produce at affordable prices – a normal market, not some ponced-up pretentious, organic orgy of preening smug self-satisfaction.

    In the UK, where markets have traditionally sold tat and seconds, they invented a concept called the ‘farmers market’ so self-righteous green queens could go and buy foreign produce (note all the olives and cod-Italian stuff) for 3 times more than you can buy it in the supermarket! If I want olives or feta or similar, I go to the supermarket. I see no advantage in being ripped off in some up itself ‘farmers market’.

    But hey, why should the yummy mummys of Crouch End care? Their million pound semi goes up more in price in a week than their foreign slave… I means…servants…I mean…domestics (who do all their dirty work)…earn in a year.

  • edithgrove

    Quite right. I’ve often wondered why a market in France is just a market selling wonderful food, as it is in Holland, but in England it’s an opportunity for snobbery and superiority. Borough Market and its offshoot, not to mention Gastropubs and fancy groceries. And wine shops. American farmers markets have a touch of the same. More and more I’m inclined to Aldi and Lidl and fishing what I want out of a cardboard box. A bakery in France sells good bread, in England they ask £3 for a crappy loaf and make you feel shabby for being astonished. Why are the English like that? It has always mystified me.

  • John Gerard

    My wife, a dietician, constantly laughs at the bullsh*t claims made by the organic nutters. We buy loads of bags frozen veg, which has the image of being for ‘poor’ people, and somehow bad for you, but is about as good as you can get. Cheap, too…

  • Geoffrey

    Supermarkets rip off Welsh dairy farmers and lake district meat-farmers. They are just as corrupt as the farmer-markets. If you want to be supplied with food that is even slightly ethically produced then get over to a butchers or local green-grocer. Its not difficult.
    Even then its unlikely everything is ethically produced or locally sourced.

    So basically economics means that very little is produced ethically. almost everything is battery-farmed and the producers of the stuff are badly paid and always will be. that’s the price of cheap food. Tough. We should just get used to it. There’s nothing we can do.

  • souptonuts

    Best sausage rolls in London at Parliament Hill farmers’ market on Saturday mornings. Dead tasty pastry.

  • mitate

    nothing to do with snobbery, the rural farmer’s market (rated amongst the finest) we go to sells food unobtainable elsewhere. we consider ourselves very fortunate to be able to enjoy such unique food, even if it costs a bit more.

  • No Good Boyo

    Sadly, Julie Bindell’s description bears no resemblance to the half-a-dozen markets that I traded at on a weekly basis.

    Yes, they are expensive. Local traders don’t have the economies of scale and economic power of Morrisons’s, which can force down the supplier’s price to cripplingly low levels. Supermarkets can also source food from across the world, air freighted thousands of miles. Strawberries harvested in Egypt can be flown to Zimbabwe for packaging, then flown again to the UK for sale. The environmental impact is appalling!

    A lot of consumers worry about this sort of thing. They feel it’s morally questionable, want to avoid it, and aren’t afraid to spend a bit extra to do so.

    Of course, air freight notwithstanding, this all takes time. Eggs in a supermarket are probably a week old before they’re even available for sale. It probably depends on the individual farmers market, but the general idea of them is that the egg would have dropped out of the chicken’s bottom the day before. Sceptics might find it hard to believe the difference that freshness makes to the flavour, until they’ve actually tasted one.

    Huge profits? Hardly. As Julie Bindell said, it’s often a hobby. That’s because you can’t make a living out of a farmer’s market. At best, you can supplement your regular income. My biggest market was in Brecon, Powys. The most I sold
    there, on my best day ever, was 130 jars, priced at £3.50. A lot for a
    jar of jam? Again, freshness adds to flavour. A jar of commercial lemon curd has probably sat in a warehouse for a few months before it’s even offered for sale, and contains all manner of additives to extend its shelf life. Sulphur dioxide is a common one. Do you really want to eat sulphur dioxide?

    My jam was produced within the previous week, having a short shelf life because the only preservatives used were sugar and lemon juice, made with the maximum of fresh fruit. Again, the difference in flavour was evident, and so people were prepared to pay £3.50.

    So, on my best day ever in a farmer’s market, I took £455. But the jams cost around £1.50 each to make, plus the cost of the jar and label, then add the value of my time for sourcing and making it, so the total production cost was more like £2 per jar. Then there was the cost of the market itself — £25. And the cost of petrol
    driving everything up there, probably a couple of gallons – so another £12.

    So, on my best farmer’s market ever, the one that broke all records, never to be equalled, I made a profit of £158.

    Traders who are public schoolboys? I never met one. Superior and snobbish? I can’t think of a faster way to lose a sale. As posh as their customers? Don’t make me laugh. Driving shiny Chelsea tractors (whatever one of those may be — I’ve never seen a tractor in Chelsea)? More like a beat-up van, or, like me, a diesel Ford with 112,000 miles on the clock. Double-filtered Ethiopian coffee? Well, if somebody with a mobile
    coffee shop wants to pay his rent and offer cappuccinos, I don’t see what’s
    wrong with that; but my experience is that Nescafe was generally the most on

    Nor did I find anybody especially smug, snobbish or self satisfied. It depends to an extent on the individual market, but another attraction of farmer’s markets that inclines people to pay the high prices and return again and again is that they become personally acquainted with the producer, who knows about his business, about his products’ provenance, and is passionate for what he or she does. Just try asking a supermarket shelf stacker about the best herbs to use with beef joint, or how a sweet-chilli glaze, caramelized under the grill, can perk up salmon steaks.

    An authoritative source recently informed me that the supermarket chains have recognised this advantage and are trying to develop staff training to replicate it. Personally, I think they’re barking up the wrong tree. Take on a low-qualified person, pay him or her the minimum wage, and then expect them to care about the tons of assorted veggies that they’re instructed to pile on the shelves, and you’re almost guaranteed to fail.

    The best thing about farmer’s markets for me was that it allowed me to start my business in an inexpensive and low-risk way. Eventually, I outgrew them, as my business expanded, but had I needed to make the investment necessary to start my business as it exists now, following two years’ unemployment, I doubt I’d have started it at all, and I’d still have been unemployed.

  • K Chandler

    This is rubbish. I buy at my farmers market or local butcher because it tastes totally different and much better than aldi or Tescos. I do it on the same budget I used to spend at the supermarket. Yes £7 is ludicrous for beans but so are these sweeping statements. Lazy article.

  • Latimer Alder

    I like shopping at our local FMs. It’s nice to be able to spend the time and to talk to the people who have a direct influence over the food we eat. And a lot of the stuff (especially the bacon eggs and sausages) tastes better than supermarket stuff.

    If there is a class warfare/carbon footprint/save the planet aspect it has thankfully passed me by. It must be ever so exhausting conducting one’s daily life while having to worry about all that trendy conceptual stuff……so I think I’ll just not bother. And since I don’t go to transition town rug making classes either I can do so without any intellectual guilt to confess.

    Off for a nice bacon sarnie…thanks to Ripley Farmers Market

  • rtj1211

    I used to shop regularly in Leeds Covered Market. The fruit and veg seller I bought from was a normal working class man who sourced his products in Yorkshire, in the main. They were far cheaper than in Sainsburys. I can’t comment about Morrisons because I never went to one in Leeds.

    I’ve bought fruit and veg fruit similar stalls under cover in Uxbridge, NW London. The prices are equally cheap as compared to the local Tescos, Waitrose etc. The men and women running the stalls equally working class.

    Would you let us all know if Morrisons paid you to write this article?

  • Colin56

    Couldn’t agree more. ‘Farmers markets’ exist to fleece the credulous and gullible. Far better to shop at good quality supermarkets (Waitrose) and independent shops. Here we have a top notch butcher and two greengrocers, both of which offer great produce at ken produce. farmers markets offer grubby veg and vacuum-packed (so you can’t actually see it) meat at prices that would make a usurer blush. I’d add in ‘farm shops’ as well, where the same rules apply. You’re right too about the smugness of the customers – truly the holier-than-thou brigade which always make me reach for my pitchfork. It’s the greedy feeding off the gullible and I think it’s great – as a spectator sport!
    What a contrast to France, where (twice) weekly markets sell real local produce to real local people at great prices – and consequently are thronged and all the goods are sold by lunchtime.

    • dee

      Couldn’t agree less. My local farmers’ market sells young runner beans which have not yet grown the strings which have to be removed with a peeler.
      NO supermarket sells these, not enough profit we weight.
      How patronising and spiteful is your branding us all “holier than thou”.
      Forget the pitchfork, you aggressive fool.

  • DougDaniel

    I dare say there’s a point to be made here, but the article’s a bit hit-and-miss.

    Anyone who tries to make out that non-supermarket food is no better quality than supermarket food is either kidding themselves, or has absolutely no appreciation of good food. The eggs I get from supermarkets have a dull yellow yoke; the ones I get from local shops have a lovely orange yoke, making for much finer omelettes etc. Sausages from local butchers are blatantly tastier than even a pack of “butcher’s choice” type sausages in the supermarket. The cuts of meat are better quality too. And the fish I get from the local “fish van” beats the fish from the supermarket any day.

    Of course, those aren’t the “hobby farmers” that Julie goes on about, which sounds like some sort of weird London phenomena to me; these are just your ordinary local merchants, trying to stay in business as more and more supermarkets get built every day. They don’t charge you £9 for a bag of asparagus, they’re actually surprisingly cheap, but then they have to compete with the powerful supermarkets. Spend £20 in their shop and they’ll probably chuck in a free tub of coleslaw or a bag of ruskoline for your fish.

    So yeah, people who feel smug because they pay stupid prices at a farmers market are idiots, but local shops certainly can provide better quality than supermarkets with their national product strategies etc. Let’s not pretend that supermarkets are some benevolent force that exist purely to keep prices down for the less well-off, because they’re not.

    • Des Demona

      Have to agree on the quality issue. Mass market supermarket food is a pale shadow of the real stuff. The only decent eggs I’ve found in a supermarket are the blue ones in Sainsbury’s. I usually get them from my local shop though, free range, £1.40, beautiful. Meat and chicken from the butcher. My girlfriend does like to hang around Planet Organic waiting for them to reduce the prices on the shortly to expire stuff – then sticks it in the freezer hah! Take that in your teeth you rip-off merchants!

    • Jambo25

      I think there’ a difference between local producers and retailers and farmers’ markets. Some of the latter are just ludicrously expensive though to be fair there are a couple of stalls in the Edinburgh one that I occasionally buy from as the quality of what they sell is superb. That however is a couple of times a year for family dinners when my son’s up or some such other (The good wine comes out for that as well.). I stay part of the week in Dumfriesshire and while they might be few and far between, local retailers, especially butchers sell some really good stuff. If you’re ever in Castle Douglas just check out the quality and variety of the meat in the local butchers’ shops. For such a small town its amongst the best I’ve seen and at ‘normal’ prices.
      The reality, though, is that for ‘base’ shopping most of us have to use supermarkets and the German discounters are about the best.

      • DougDaniel

        I was in Castle Douglas a few months ago actually, and I was absolutely amazed at the vibrancy of the High Street and its lack of ubiquity. I heard a thing on the radio not long ago about ways to re-energise town centres, and Castle Douglas was held up as a shining example of how it can be done.

        • Jambo25

          There’s a fair number of very good butchers all over Dumfries and Galloway. Scotland produces the word’s best beef, sheep meat and pork and D&G is about the best of the best so the raw materials are there. There’s another factor at work though.
          D&G isn’t known as a wealthy area but it isn’t poor either. Employment levels are good, property prices are low and there is a fair sprinkling of well-off people in some of the towns all over the region. CD is one of those towns. In other words there is effective demand to support a decent town centre. In English terms, for our readers down south, its a bit like the area of Shropshire from Shrewsbury southwards.

    • girondas2

      “And the fish I get from the local “fish van” beats the fish from the supermarket any day.”

      That’ll be because it’s 2 weeks fresher

      • DougDaniel

        That’s my point, aye.

  • girondas2

    My local farmer’s market are excellent, but then i don’t live in North London

    • Alexsandr

      well quite. And the food festivals generate huge crowds. Near us there is one that has over 100 stalls 2x a year and pulls in 20,000 punters
      but the queues are for the local beer and cider, the hog roasts, the sausages and cheeses, not the veg.
      but i grow some tomatoes. We got the first 2 cherry sized ones out of the garden yesterday. The taste compared with anything in the shop was superb.
      why does so much of our food taste of nothing?

      • girondas2

        Man after my own heart.
        We (well, alright my wife) planted 60 tomato plants this year – that’s a pretty normal number. All the fruit will get used. As you say, commercial tomatoes taste of nothing. It isn’t just the variety that is the problem I think much of the problem is that commercial growers pick the fruit before it has ripened.

    • RobertC

      I agree, but we have more than one farmer at the market. The eggs are less than a day old and are very good value.

  • Bonkim

    What is wrong with satisfying customer demand?

  • David Prentice

    Harry Enfield nailed these types a long time ago

  • Malcolm Stevas

    A nice vignette, though she could have targeted the health-food scam with greater justification. Visit your local “health food” emporium, one of the bigger classier variety, and watch those carbon-footprint-conscious ladies carefully depositing the bags of quinoa (sp?) in their baskets – it’s a sort of rather crude and not terribly flavoursome cereal crop, or whatever, grubbed up by Latin American peasants on subsistence incomes, jetted across the world, and flogged to the credulous for silly sums of money that would be far better spent on keeping our own peasantry employed at, er, Morrisons. Why do they buy it? Because they’re pretentious and stupid.

    • post_x_it

      On a trip to Peru, a local tried to explain to me what quinoa was (basically a cheap, low-grade staple). His eyeballs popped out when I told him it was a fashionable, expensive health food in Europe.

  • post_x_it

    Don’t you ever get tired of class war? Life’s short, you know…

  • Jambo25

    My wife and I shop mostly in Lidl’s although we buy our fresh meat and fish from our excellent local butcher’s and fish shop. The fish shop and butcher’s are quite pricey but the produce is fantastic. We bake our own bread and cakes in a breadmaker we bought from Lidl’s at a knock down price. I buy all my anti-biotics from Lidl’s as well. Actually, that last one’s a lie.

  • Aberrant_Apostrophe

    We have local weekly Farmers’ Market. I get the impression the vegetables they sell they buy from the Iceland store across the road, rub some soil on them and flog them at four times the price.

  • Diggery Whiggery

    Organic food, just like fair trade coffee is just another way to price target.

    • post_x_it

      Depends what it is. In supermarkets, the “organic” meat range does tend to be much better quality than the standard stuff. Fruit and vegetables on the other hand often seem exactly the same except for the label.

      • Diggery Whiggery

        It may well be better quality. They’d never get away with selling the same quality products with different labels and prices, not for long anyway. There has to be differentiation of product as well as price but that does not mean it’s not price targeting.

  • Suzy61

    Every word perfect.

    • post_x_it

      Indeed. The problem is with the way she strings them together.

  • anyfool

    Pass the smelling salts please, a Guardian writer with a brain that has some sense swirling around in it..

    • fundamentallyflawed

      Farmers normally own lots of land and therefore form part of the ruling class and are game targets for Guardian attacks

      • post_x_it

        Not enough for m’Julie though, she had to throw in their public-school education and Chelsea tractors.

      • Wessex Man

        doesn’t change the fact tha Farmers Markets are a load of rubbish. Strange that I live in rural England and I know of no farmers wifes who shop at the Farmers Markets that pitch up for free in car parks paying no rates for pitches and are unknown to us.

        • Jambo25

          Good God! Something else we agree on. I used to be down in the Shropshire Hill Country quite a lot and the farmers would tend to use the small, local Harry Tuffin’s chain of what were basically big sheds that sold lots of things. I think the chain is still going. Beautiful area with lovely people by the way.

      • Shorne

        23,000 UK farmers are tenants and their rents are always going up,and before anybody starts on about subsidies the majority of UK farmers (63%) receive less than £5,000 a year in farm subsidies,and some sectors – pigs, poultry and horticulture – receive no subsidies at all.
        I don’t need to go to Farmer’ Markets because 10 minutes from my home there is a street full of ‘ethnic’ shops. Piles of wonderful fresh fruit and veg, halal meat which always seems very lean and displays of fish not normally seen outside a wild life documentary and all very cheap.

        • ButcombeMan

          Beware that the “halal” meat has not been rustled on the Yorkshire Moors or the Mendips then transported to some back yard in the West Midlands and illegally slaughtered.

          The ”halal” meat trade accommodates such practices, especially for some of the curry houses

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