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.