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Miranda Sharp is the farmers’ market protagonist
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Miranda Sharp is the farmers’ market protagonist
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Miranda Sharp is the farmers’ market protagonist
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Conversations
26 April 2019

Miranda Sharp is the farmers’ market protagonist

Interview by Prudence Rothwell
Photography by Prudence Rothwell

Miranda Sharp is the farmers’ market protagonist

Farmers’ markets are beautiful things. Brimming with freshly-harvested seasonal produce direct from local farmers, they seem to appear magically in our neighbourhoods every month, or if you’re lucky, every week. Over the past 17 years, Miranda Sharp has been an instrumental figure in paving a future for the Victorian local food movement. Miranda is a change-maker. From her kitchen table, she established Melbourne’s first farmers’ market at the Collingwood Children’s Farm in 2002 and hasn’t looked back since.

As the founder and managing director of Melbourne Farmers Markets (MFM), a not-for-profit social enterprise, Miranda is on a mission to celebrate, give credit and provide opportunities for Victorian farmers and producers. From the small beginnings of one five-hour market day a month, MFM now operates seven accredited farmers’ markets across inner Melbourne with a network of over 300 Victorian farming and food businesses and thousands of shoppers.

I had the pleasure of working at Melbourne Farmers Markets, with “Min” as we know her, for over five years. Now, I have the pleasure in sharing our conversation that explores the trailblazing commitment and vulnerability of a woman working relentlessly to create positive change in the food system.

Behind extraordinary ideas, there are extraordinary people. Dumbo Feather is a magazine about these people.

PRUDENCE ROTHWELL: Farmers’ markets and Miranda Sharp are synonymous in Melbourne, and across Australia. How on earth did you start this journey in what is still considered a niche area of the food system?

MIRANDA SHARP: We went to our family farm near Geelong every weekend when I was a kid, and my dad grew up on a dairy farm. So, I have always had a toe in the country, but I can’t say that I’ve ever been a farmer. I’ve been interested in food and particularly in cooking, from a very early age. I wasn’t sure which direction I was going to take but just through travel and the ways of the world, I ended up catering. For 10 years, I had a small catering business in Melbourne. I was looking to differentiate in the very rapidly growing corporate catering scene. I gravitated towards buying direct from producers; partly for the differentiation of our business, partly because of the disconnect from buying through a distributor.

And then, I fell into writing for Epicure and a similar sense struck me. I was disenchanted with the sort of high-end sameness that was emerging. I wasn’t interested in imported cherries and glossy packaging. No one was writing about primary producers or local produce, so I did. I wrote a column about local food, seasonality and other things that I was doing such as cheesemaking and moving to Gippsland. It got under my skin. I was in the minority and this subject was in the minority.

As an early adopter of waste diversion, I would take catering leftovers to feed the pigs at the Collingwood Children’s Farm where I also volunteered. It was at the time of the proposed residential development looming upon the Farm, and the community action to stop it. So, as my part in helping, and to see a place in Melbourne for Victorian farmers to be in the spotlight, I started Melbourne’s first farmers’ market in October 2002. At the time I thought, “What could be so hard about one market day a month?”? [Laughs.] Little did I know!

[Laughs]. You’ve described change-makers that you admire as brave people that are driven and willing to make themselves unpopular at times in order to achieve their objective. I very much consider you a change-maker in the food system space by pushing the boundaries for an increasingly localised food system that celebrates and highlights the importance of primary producers.

Yeah. I think that’s really true and there’s a lot of politics and being an agitator or an activator are really closely linked. I’m horrified at the idea of politics, ironically [laughs].

[Laughs].

But I can see that it’s action that makes a significant mover, a change-maker.

Behind change-makers there must be a supportive network of family friends and others. Who has supported you throughout the 17 years where you have lived and breathed farmers’ markets?

The culture within my family is very driven, it’s very principled. Whether it’s right or wrong: if you believe it, then you live it. Both my parents gave enormously to their areas of interest and anyone who happened to pop up in their lives needing support. So I think that is my greatest inheritance—a very strong principle of contribution and work ethic. I am driven in what I believe and fortunate enough, as they say, to “surround yourself with good people” [laughs]. I’ve been incredibly lucky in the person who I’m spending my life with, Antony, who’s endlessly patient, frustrated, short sometimes and clear about what he likes and dislikes about what I do. But, also with my boys who’ve grown up without the choice of whether they like it or not. I’m very proud of the people that they have become. By sheer wonderful fate, I’ve come across incredible people throughout my life—people who I’ve worked with, friends and now the people who I’ve got to know over many years of farmers’ markets. It’s a very big community and based on the fact that we all share the one of few things: we all need to eat. Many of us are incredibly fortunate in Australia, and I think it’s upon us to be thankful, and not just that, that we’re conscious of this privilege. That is a very strong identifier in my world—I don’t have time for people who are selfish or don’t appreciate what they’ve got. It’s really clear in life that the people who appreciate what they’ve got tend to be people of real substance. I’m very drawn to those people.

What does it mean for you to be a championing the farmers’ market sector in Melbourne?

It’s a fine line these days of feeling very, very proud but very challenged by the job we’re tackling. When I feel like we’re understood or being in control of our own destiny, it’s very satisfying. But when we’re not in a position to represent what’s going on completely then we can’t help but feel vulnerable.

Sometimes for all we try, we’re not recognised for the effort and judged for what we got wrong, or what we didn’t get right.

Is that when you step back and see that as a part of being a change-maker, a disruptor?

Yeah definitely, I just don’t know how many more times I can reinvent myself! Being a constant protagonist takes its toll. But I still believe that it’s worthwhile. We just need to keep trying and keep proving the detractors wrong, that our efforts are genuine.

It seems there is a fine balance between what is personal and what is business—how do you manage this?

Personally, I find it incredibly difficult. I find it almost impossible, which is my own challenge.

The good far outweighs the negatives by a long shot, I know that in what we’ve achieved over the years, the things that we’ve created for people. It’s not about the accolades; it’s about the impact. But every time we take a knock, you’ve got to pick yourself up and get going again.

So, going back to 2012 when you transitioned from a kitchen table operation to a not-for-profit company, Melbourne Farmers Markets. What lead you to do this decision?

I felt that if we were going to establish an organisational structure, the first of its type in Australia, then we needed it to be transparent. In hindsight it was the most difficult way, because there’s no legislation or regulation for the farmers market sector, so it’s anything goes out there for the rest. But I still believe that it was the way to go. Otherwise, I could have gone to the other extreme and established a private company; everything fee for service, everything to have a financial value on it. I had nothing to gain from it being privatised. I originally owned the entity of the market at the Collingwood Children’s Farm but I believed in the partnership model of shared gains and contributions. I gifted the entity to the Farm because it was what I believed in. The market gave the Farm the financial security that it has today. To hear the market credited as saving the Farm—it is those things that make you tick. That’s really significant in the pride and satisfaction because it’s not individual gain. It’s this extraordinary entity that Melbourne and beyond loves.

The reliance on grant funding within the community food sector puts many organisations in a vulnerable position and often being drawn away from their core mission in order to obtain more funds for short-term projects to simply continue operating. How has MFM countered that and does that make the organisation vulnerable in a different way?

It’s such a fine line between whether it’s advantageous or not to be out of that grant stream. We are a registered not-for-profit entity, and a social enterprise, so therefore exist on our trade. In our case it’s 100 per cent, and that is really unusual. We have nothing on our bones other than what we can create ourselves and there is so much that’s out of our control. Every business that we do business with may be telling us tomorrow that they’re moving on, closing up, have outgrown us, run out of produce, not interested, pissed off. We cannot forecast what will happen and that’s what makes our viability really difficult. We try and put everything in the control of the producer in order to provide an environment that is about them rather than about everyone else, which is pretty unusual. But it makes it hard for us because we don’t have any room to move. I’ve supported it a lot, personally and financially, there’s no doubt about that. So there’s not a clear, “Are we a fully viable model?” We’re certainly striving to be but it’s certainly not without my backing, and that’s still a hard thing to reconcile, you know, “Are we actually able to stand on our own feet?”

What do you think?

I truly believe that we can. In a way it’s what makes me think about succession or exiting the scene so it can’t rely on my energy or input in its future. I’m definitely guilty of just doing more in order to make it work rather than going, “This is fucked, we need to close the doors.” In our case, the fact that it had so much of my personal history is really difficult to shrug off. If we’d started out by establishing it and I was just one of the pieces of the puzzle, then who knows what decisions would have been made. Had it been set up with more strategy and structure around it from the beginning, perhaps there wouldn’t have been the occasional situation where I’ve felt very responsible, personally.

MFM is part of a state-wide network of farmers’ markets that are accredited by the Victorian Farmers’ Markets Association. What is the value in operating accredited farmers’ markets?

I suppose the potential for a really strong collaborative movement kicking arse. Victoria happens to be a small state so having 40 or so accredited farmers’ markets should create a very powerful tight, unified environment. Ideally, the collective effort and consistency of objective has to be more powerful than being divided. Victoria is also an extraordinary state for what we can produce. You can get mangoes in season right now in March and next month there will be avocados from southern Victoria and just the north, south, east and west nature of our diversity. Farmers’ markets offer significant tourism and agriculture-on-a-plate. In the early days, I developed a structure of vetting stallholders to ensure their integrity and I then passed this onto the Victorian Farmers’ Markets Association which in turn contributed to the development of the accreditation program. It’s definitely still work in progress and certainly not perfect, but we are the only state to have even attempted it. The fact is that there was no other way because there is no legislation or regulation imposed on the farmers’ market sector, so we had to create our own.

And tell me about the stallholder community. Who are the farmers and producers that attend MFM?

It’s hard to define who our stallholder community is, because there is so much diversity amongst them, but I think the most common element amongst them is a belief and determination about the future – and increasingly, a focus on regenerative agriculture. It’s not just about what they produce currently, but how to improve their practices, how to embrace technology into it, how to encourage and support young farmers, and how to communicate why life in farming is so important. In our case it’s to educate a city audience, who need to know that, and where the hell will they get their food in future? The stallholders are an extraordinary bunch. They’re generous, caring and real about their community, which I think is really unusual in a competitive environment. They’ve all transformed themselves, which is a very hard ask in itself. We expect them to get off the farm and the work they know to think about packing, transport, marketing, insurance off-farm, and then become front end retailers. And then, “Oh just get on and be publicity people with an Instagram post while you’re at it.”

Is it viable to ask that much of farmers?

It’s not for everyone, that’s for sure, but for the business who have the capacity or determination to adapt, they see our markets not only for the turnover on the day, but for the value in the connection to their customer, the educational aspects, the marketing exercise and the testing ground of product and produce. They use markets as a shopfront. So, they’re saying to their customers, their chefs, the other businesses that they’re doing trade with to come and see them at the market and then introducing all of those businesses to the other stallholders.

From the get-go you have always prioritised relationships with producers. This is very much instilled in the MFM organisational culture with emphasis on creating connected, trusting relationships. How do you ensure that the importance of strong relationships remain a priority as the organisation grows and there is an increasing need for systems, processes and efficiency?

I think it’s an openness to be continually challenged, to be able to be wrong and to learn.

We have a structure and many, many procedures in place but they are set up to be adaptable, ideally to every situation, but realistically, most situations. We have people who despite every effort do fall through and we can’t be everything to everyone. But we certainly give that a red-hot go. For an organisation that handles so many businesses, we’re certainly swimming against the tide, but everyone is doing a remarkable job in trying their guts out.

Where I think we play an unusual role, often overlooked, is the importance of a supportive social environment for people and their exchanges. There’s nothing I love more than hearing of the connections made at our markets, a bear hug of gratitude or being tagged in a post about a cracking market day. Pride in agriculture and the self-esteem of our farming communities would be a public health issue if I had my way. I wish we could capture it but no company report or KPI can capture the role that our market community plays.

The other week a stallholder, before heading out of town for his three-hour drive home, posted on social media about his “overwhelming sense of fulfilment from providing for his customers, something that money can’t buy!” That’s pure joy for me.

Joy that seems to keep energising you to swim against the tide! What else keeps you at the helm of MFM?

I recognise other people’s strengths which bring us together as an organisation and this is absolutely pivotal. I’ve got real strengths but I’ve got many limitations! That’s why I felt that a professional organisation stood a lot better chance of having longevity than something that I just happened to believe in. I’m also continually energised by our community. There are people in the mix who are not just farming but also educated and motivated by the environment to provide for the next generation of people to have work in the sector and have decent food. We’re at a time where if we squander this, it’s the most outrageously irresponsible thing in Victoria, Australia.

Opportunities in the regional areas are often limited and perhaps unappealing and to move to the city, in my own experience, is when you then realise that there is such a disconnect between rural and urban.

Yeah. And maybe that’s why MFM attracts so many people in our immediate mix who have grown up on a farm. In your hearts, you want to see regional Australia recognised and farmers rewarded.

So why should we, as consumers, care where our food comes from and reconnect with our regional communities? I mean, we are constantly told to “know where your food comes from.”

Drives me bloody nuts every time I hear that expression, so often it’s just convenient rhetoric…

Tokenistic?

Yes. If we in the local food system supplying direct, and that’s not just farmers’ markets, are approximately five percent of the population then can we really say that people are acting on that rhetoric? No we can’t, it’s bullshit. Everyone’s saying it and then going through the easiest path to source their food. Whereas if we could double that five percent, I think we’d all have half a chance of staying relevant.

So why then, should people prioritise shopping at farmers’ markets?

Because every effort and dollar counts, you know, so being able to put a positive value on the things we do has a ripple effect for good. We’ve eroded so much of our agricultural culture in the very short history of a generation really, but it’s not out of our reach to turn it around and see the results. I think it’s possible, with a little collective effort, starting with those who can afford to in order to share it with others. I think it’s really important to say that farmers’ markets are not the salvation. Farmers’ markets play a part in the efforts of many initiatives in our local food system like community supported agriculture, food hubs, veg box deliveries, farm gates and independent retail across Victoria. Anything and everything that genuinely champions where our food comes from farmers. It doesn’t come out of a packet. The satisfaction, pleasure and significance of buying direct is not just about the dollar but giving credit where it’s due and that is a beautiful thing. It’s really hard to quantify what that value is but when you read about a producer who is talking about their positive mental health because of their market relationships, getting off farm and the broader support network that is provided within the market environment, then it’s a good thing. You don’t get that in many other forms of the supply chain in our sector. So much focus exists for the end provider—being our extraordinary celebrated restaurant culture and manufacturers making it to supermarket success, but how would it exist without our primary producers? We gloss over that every other day.

What can customers expect when shopping at one of MFM farmers’ markets—should they come with a list?

No, it’s a lucky dip of Victorian seasonal produce! Hopefully they can find a diverse range of produce but not an expectation of a comprehensive range. The more that we can explain but not apologise for what happens from region to region, environmental circumstances to whatever, the better off everyone is because then we better understand the whole food system.

I think the culture of convenience is a constant barrier for shoppers attending their local farmers’ market. Often farmers’ markets are held on the weekend, once a month and often clashing with our busy life schedules. How can this be addressed and why aren’t there more weekly farmers’ markets?

Oh god if I had my time over again, I would have started every market as weekly. Running weekly markets is no more challenging than running a market once a month. You throw as much energy into a market once a month as you do with the rolling momentum of a weekly market. So it’s got to be more worthwhile to run a weekly market. Also knowing that people shop everyday applies a level of confidence when establishing a new market when the circumstances or opportunities present. You know; build it, stick with it and they will come. We’ve just got to believe that it’s viable because if there can be a Coles Express at the bottom of every other building in the city, why is there not a farmers’ market every other day? It’s a shift in culture but policy-makers also need to allow for it in the design and thinking, not just talk the rhetoric of better health and communities. The government needs to recognise the value in what we do, if indeed, it does value what we do.

This article is part of our “Healing the Land” campaign at Dumbo Feather. For more stories, inspiration and ideas, purchase Issue 58 of Dumbo Feather or subscribe

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