Hovingham shows there is life in farmers markets yet

New York City has 107, Los Angeles has 88 and yet Leeds has just a handful of farmers markets. We like to think we have embraced the concept since the first UK version in 1997, but we are massively behind many other countries and there is a feeling among some that British farmers markets have already had their day.

Hovingham Farmers Market is a runaway success.

Step up Hovingham Farmers Market also known as Hovingham Village Market that takes place twice this month - today and in a fortnight’s time. It started in 2009, long after the main swathe were up and running, but has forged a tremendous reputation, has won awards and can attract in excess of 1,000 visitors to the village hall where it boasts more than 50 stands offering nearly every meat, vegetable, fruit and other type of food produce imaginable.

Peter Stark is chairman of the Hovingham Village Market, lives in the village and two-and-a-half miles away is the hub of his family’s farm business, operated with his parents Doug and Janet and brother Chris, at The Wall in Coulton from where they have sold produce since the 1970s by starting out with lettuce. Today their business, all on rented land, runs to around 350 acres from which they produce lamb, pork, vegetables and plants for The Wall, which is exactly that, selling from their own wall by the side of the road at the Coulton crossroads, and for the farmers market. Peter tells of how he cast a cynical eye over the idea of Hovingham Village Market at first.

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“We’d had a survey in the village and residents had said that one thing they would like to see was a food market. Half a dozen of us got together to organise the first one. We had 20-plus stands when we started out in October 2009. We thought it would be all over by December, three months and that would be it, but it took off.

“What we’ve found is that although we can’t compete on price because we as farmers ourselves haven’t the size or scale to cope in order to bring the price down to supermarket levels, what we can compete on is quality, provenance and talking to customers about where the produce has come from, what we do and why we farm the way we do. That’s our strength and is the key to farmers markets. We farm using old-fashioned ley principles but with modern techniques and machinery and I think people care much more these days about the story of where their food is coming from.

“You have to interact with customers, tell people how you’ve reared the stock or grown the vegetables and how what we are doing is good for the land. Our farm system works well. The muck from the cattle helps grow the potatoes, the left over potatoes feed the cattle and the vegetables help feed the sheep. The way we farm solves a lot of the problems that others have with monoculture that they try to sort out with chemicals and cans. I have no problem at all with telling our story and if I have to put a piece of straw in my mouth because that’s an image a customer likes then I’ll do it.”

Hovingham is one of North Yorkshire’s many chocolate box villages and beautiful Hovingham Hall has been home to the Worsley family for generations. It attracts visitors all through the year so to many it will be no surprise that the farmers market has succeeded where others have struggled. The village, replete with either a book sale or table top sale on the green during summer, looks just like a setting for the start of an episode of Midsomer Murders, somewhere anyone would want to go but obviously without the TV outcome.

“It’s definitely a destination village. People come to Hovingham when there isn’t a market on. We have a village bakery, tearooms and a couple of hostelries but the village market has become a real community project. We all give our time freely and because we’re not paying anyone, except a nominal rent to the village hall, we are able to promote and advertise more than others. We get regular trade not just locally but from as far afield as Hartlepool, Scarborough and the West Riding. We’ve a coach load coming from Pontefract to either this Saturday’s or the one in a fortnight.”

Peter and Janet generally run the two stalls that the Starks have at the market. Peter looks after the meat stand that has their lamb and pork while Janet, who was a schoolteacher at Hovingham infant school for over 30 years, looks after the veg. Janet is proud of her own record in having attended every Hovingham Village Market day. Doug enters the fray in spring when the bedding plants and flowers make their impact.

Chris has responsibility for growing the vegetables of which 40 varieties are grown.

“We grow everything from potatoes, parsnips, carrots, swedes, turnips, cabbages, leeks and onions. We currently have a varied selection of kale of which we usually produce a tremendous crop and that’s doing very well at the market and on the wall. It’s a product that the supermarkets don’t usually do very well because it has such a short shelf life. Here we can cut it and have it on the wall or at the market within 10 minutes, they can’t compete with us there.

“Christmas time is my busiest of the year. Sprouts on stalks - like tomatoes on the vine - have become another popular one recently and we do well with those too. There are still those that just want them loose in a bag though.”

MARKET’s COMMUNITY SPIRITED ROLE

Hovingham Farmers Market has also become a community fundraising outfit. Its not-for-profit stance has seen it contribute to the local playground, maintenance of the village clock and paying for the village Christmas tree.

The Starks’ farming enterprise includes 375 breeding ewes. Most of their annual 600 butchers’ lambs are sold at Thirsk and Malton livestock markets. They also have a 30-cow suckler herd and buy dairy bred calves to rear on. Stock is sold largely at Thirsk. There is a small outdoor pig herd from bought-in store pigs reared on to produce pork for the market and sold direct from the farm. They also produce 60 turkeys for Christmas and chicken. Orders will be taken at the next two farmers markets.