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NEWS | Sunday, 15 June 2008

Farmers’ markets, ‘buying best for less’

Talking to Peter Axisa, President of the Ta’ Qali Producers Group, JAMES DEBONO finds out that farmers’ markets could be the consumers’ answer to rising food prices.

One sure advantage for farmers and consumers alike is that farmers’ markets cut the various middlemen and retailers from the food equation.
They create a direct link between the consumer and the farmer price mark ups introduced by those who stand in between them are eliminated.
Surely this is no guarantee that local produce will be in any way cheaper than imports, which benefit from large economies of scale. But it will surely make local produce more competitive.
Since December of last year, the Ta’ Qali Producers Group has been selling its crops directly to the public every Sunday from a warehouse. Now they plan to open shop every day. “The public’s reaction for our Sunday market has been overwhelming,” Peter Axisa says.
Rather than banking on restrictions on imports, which have the drawback of raising consumer prices in times of local scarcity, Axisa is banking on consumers’ taste buds. “One big thing in favour of farmers is that the greater majority of Maltese will opt for a Maltese fruit and vegetable any day as long as the price is reasonable.”
Consumers can currently drive around the countryside and come across the odd farm-gate sales shop, but Axisa says most of these are set on a temporary basis with farmers selling whatever produce they happen to have at that particular time.
Axisa laments that farmers are not making enough efforts to reach out to the consumer. “I am a strong believer that farmer’s markets should be set up and we intend to act as a trendsetter in this field. At present we are constricted to opening only on Sundays but with this arrangement our intention is to be available for the public on a daily basis. The consumer will have the facility of buying the ‘best for the least’.”
The rise in energy prices which is also contributing to the hike in food prices could also encourage the trend. Farmers are already handicapped by the fact that they cannot raise prices at will. “Whilst the rise in energy costs is instantly felt by the farmers, the farmer cannot compensate by putting his price up as happens in a normal business, as he still has to rely on the forces of supply and demand.”
Due to the price increases for fruit and vegetables even outside Malta, importers are now more cautious on what to import and when, Axisa claims, because price fluctuations can take place any day. “These can turn what could be a reasonable margin of profit on a consignment of imports, into a loss for the importer.”
Axisa says this is not necessarily a negative thing: “The consumer can put his or her mind at rest that a lack of imports proves that local prices are reasonable, whilst importation guarantees that local prices do not rise excessively.”
Farmers’ markets are recommended by international environmental groups like Friends of the Earth, who say they produce less wastage since good food is not discarded just because it doesn’t fit supermarkets’ packaging requirements.
Food markets also keep food from being transported hundreds of miles to distant warehouses and then shunted back in big lorries to supermarkets, reducing environmental costs from transport. Less food miles also means other reduced environmental impacts. Food needs less processing, packaging and preserving, because it doesn’t have to survive long journeys.

jdebono@mediatoday.com.mt


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