Mt Claremont Farmers’ Market

Voluptuous and black, my aubergine winks at me as I cut into it, the skin popping delicately against my knife.  Cream flesh confirms its just picked quality, igniting my desire to cook something wonderful.  Will dinner tonight take the family to Greece with the rich flavours of moussaka, to France with ratatouille, or will I stuff it with spicy onions and tomato – making an Imam bayildi – and journey to Turkey?

This luscious eggplant came from Perth’s Mount Claremont Farmers’ Market held in the grounds of Mt Claremont Primary School.  Open from 7.30 to 11.30 every Saturday morning, it’s providing an increasingly popular way to buy seasonal food straight from the grower.  There are always new stalls; not surprising considering this market began with only eight in December 2007.  Now there are over 45 stalls selling local produce and value-added food.  Sellers, rushed off their feet, are always happy to talk about their wares.  The vibe is relaxed, yet energised; the sense of organised turmoil adds informality and humour.  Customers are there for more than just to buy tonight’s dinner.

Families meander past tents selling flowers or plants; ladies on their way home from the gym buy a loaf of bread for brunch; others have driven from distant suburbs to pick up organic supplies; and there are couples, taking their dog for a walk, who stop here for a coffee and some fruit for the week.  A busker, the school playground and an occasional visit from Old McDonald’s Travelling Farm provide entertainment for children.  Chairs and benches grouped together in the middle of the stalls are filled with adults, free from weekday time constraints, chatting over coffee and cupcakes.  Dogs, on their leashes, sniff the exciting smells filling the quadrangle.

From the start the intention has been to build a regional cooperative spirit.  Market Manager at the time, Natasha Atkinson, points out, “The whole idea is for the farmers to make money and it’s all about a community coming together…being self sustaining.”

According to the Mt Claremont Farmers’ Market Charter, it aims to “engage the local and broader community… [This] reflects the desire of the Mt Claremont Primary School P&C to [be involved in a] mutually beneficial interaction with the local and wider community…The philosophy of the market is to provide consumers with fresh, local, and seasonal produce direct from producers.  The market [brings] together the grower and consumer offering a more direct ‘paddock to plate’ process than otherwise available from commercial retailers.”

Nedlands resident, Susie Rogers, says one of the reasons she shops here is because of “…the nice environment.”  Pia Weidemann, who sells produce at the Freshline Organics stall, notes, “It’s a nice getaway on a Saturday morning.  They have the playground for the children, and now they have the chairs if people want to have a coffee.”

There are queues, but those waiting are good-humoured, and they come back.  Natasha estimates that over 2000 shoppers come through the gates most Saturdays, while Paul Civa, who has a ticket system to reduce waiting time, says that over 600 customers purchase fruit from his main stall.  His smaller bulk bagged fruit stall doesn’t need a ticket system.  Bruce Wilde considers it worth his while, even with the cost of fuel, to travel three hours from Nannup every fortnight to sell cheese.

Food can be a force for unity; it facilitates a sense of belonging to something greater than self.  Shoppers here share more than a need to eat three times a day.  Individuals are united by the importance they place on quality food.  Producers are driven by a desire to treat food well and customers by a wish to eat well.  This enthusiasm is infectious; it gives regulars something to talk about in the queues and with the vendors.  Susie Rogers comes here because, “The quality is so much better.  I never get fruit at a big supermarket, it’s awful.  The fruit and veg’ at the market lasts a whole lot longer in the fridge because it’s top notch. They have fabulous cheese too.”

Stalls – such as those selling olive oil, bacon, marron or preserves – provide opportunities to taste before you buy.  This slows the pace; shoppers have to engage with producers and a relationship begins.

The experience at the Farmers’ Market is subtly different to a shopping centre or a more eclectic market; the grower and the consumer interact face to face.  Those who shop here know they are buying direct from the producer.  An unspoken contract exists between shopper and seller.  If the produce is of a high quality and meets expectations, the customer will return.  In exchange the growers will do their best to ensure a consistently high standard and the best price possible.  As Paul says, “We want to deliver a good quality product, so [we] get some satisfaction out of it.  Obviously we don’t get it right 100 percent of the time…If you come to me and buy fruit from me ten times in a row and nine times you have an above average experience, then you are going to come back.  If it was only good five times then you’ll say ‘What’s the point?  I’ll just grab it when I go through the supermarket.’”

This is not a fairytale, not all customers have entered into this bond.  “We keep the garlic at the counter now,” Ully Fritsch, owner of Freshline Organics, whose certified organic farm is in Serpentine, informed me. “Otherwise we find it disappears.”

Enthusiasm for their product is obvious among stallholders.  They know what everything they sell tastes like; they delight in advising on the best way to store, prepare and eat their merchandise.  They genuinely want shoppers to enjoy their food.  Not just because they want return sales, but because their life and pride is invested in what they do.  “We just work at getting it better and better and better,” asserts Bruce.

Meeting the growers and producers is an education in passion. “Maybe I’ve got too much love for my fruit,” Paul admits.  “Sometimes I think it might be easier to go and get a job and forget about it.  It’s like a bit of a disease, you can’t get rid of it.  The passion for growing stuff, it’s like a bit of a love, hate relationship.”  For Civa it’s about providing the best possible fruit.  He strives to provide “good quality…The stuff we bring down [from the hills] now is the same standard that you would get at, say, a good quality retailer…at a more reasonable price.”

The Mount Claremont Farmers’ Market is an opportunity for shopper and grower to unite against the dominance of the supermarket.  Individuals can’t compete against the economies of scale of the big oligopolies.  Or can they?  As Paul points out, “Last week we brought down pink lady apples.  We picked them on the Friday and we brought them down on the Saturday.  No retailer is going to be able to get that freshness.” Bruce notes that unlike shops a farmers’ market “is a good opportunity for people to buy direct, and the thing about buying direct is that, if there ever was a problem with the product, they can contact you direct.”

Customers want to take an active role in getting value for money.  A few weeks ago, I bought half a watermelon for $2 from one of the stalls.  I couldn’t resist its luscious looking flesh, and when I got it home it didn’t disappoint.  Later that day, I dropped into a nearby food store known for its high quality fruit and vegetables.  I noticed a man pricing quarters of watermelon at $8 each.   As Pia remarks, “People can purchase a local WA product and the cheapest – freshest – shall we say.  When they come here, they know they are getting the cheapest.”

Home cooks are happier knowing the provenance of their food.  As Paul says, “With apples…a consumer could go [to a supermarket] and get three or four growers’ apples on the shelf at any one time; one grower’s might be good the others’ might be crap.”

Owners of Mourambine Lamb, David and Carmel Pauley, farm free range lamb 160 kilometres south of Perth.  At Mt Claremont, the Pauleys sell their meat in bulk – you can buy either quarter or half a lamb – butchered, bagged and boxed.  Each purchase comes with David and Carmel’s contact details; a promise their sheep are farmed humanely; that the meat is of high quality; and a request for feedback. There is always a line of customers in front of David’s refrigeration truck as he hands out meat and assurances of superiority.  David can compete, despite the fact that local butchers sell 80 percent of their meat value added and ready to go in the oven, because Mourambine customers buy their meat straight from the farmer.  He is proud to discuss everything that happened to that lamb up to the moment of purchase.  Consumers are confident they are buying from someone who considers excellence important.

A cynic may say Mt Claremont Market is busy because shopping seasonally, locally and organically is what’s cool at the moment; shopping here allows locals to shop in a way that is trendy.  This would be an oversimplification.  With these criteria, my delectable aubergine – grown 35 kilometres down the road by Freshline Organics – certainly qualifies as a hip purchase, but when my children devour their moussaka tonight, I know I’ll start thinking about vegetables I can put on my shopping list for next Saturday.  What stands out about this market is that it’s the epitome of affordable healthy living.  People are brought together by an aspiration to eat well.  Shopping here is fun, for many, it is an end in itself.  The whole family, dogs and all, can engage in the experience.  Both grower and customer feel empowered by the Farmers’ Market.  Shoppers know they are getting the best food possible, short of growing it themselves.  At the same time, there is the knowledge they are helping local businesses.  Individuals can balance belief and practice.  A positive community spirit can’t help but flourish.

Marianne Robins 25th May 2008



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