THE jewels in Cork’s crown as the Food Capital of Ireland are its farmers’ markets, servicing communities across the county every week, supporting a network of artisan producers and to-go food stalls.
They are places of commerce, but they are also social hubs. Music fills the air, along with the scent of food made to make mouths water.
Unique and stitched into the social fabric of communities, farmers’ markets fell silent a few weeks into lockdown when ordered to close.
Reaction fell into one of two camps: markets are a place of social gathering and should close, or markets are an essential service and should never close.
However, the decision to close them was viewed by those for whom markets represent the only outlet for earning a living or their primary place for food shopping, as a riddle of contradictions.
Many small producers lost vital business with the closures of cafes and restaurants and markets became their sole outlet to earn a living. The only market left operating in the country was the English Market — a covered, indoor market.
Although farmers’ markets have been open and trading again since the end of May, the decision to close them during lockdown laid bare the strange and unusual relationship that Ireland has to its markets.
On the continent, markets are an essential part of community life where the weekly shop happens. Local growers, butchers, fish and cheese mongers all jostle for every euro before packing up and moving onto the next town. Covered markets operating daily from a fixed location are a boon to food tourism and often define a reason for visiting — much like the English Market in Cork, the famous Mercat de la Boqueria in Barcelona, the Time Out market in Lisbon, or Borough Market in London.
What is the draw? Do we consider visiting our farmers’ markets an act of leisure or an act of commerce? It is unhelpful that, in Ireland, there is a complicated structure of ownership and responsibility for our markets. Many are operated by councils, others operate on private land. Some have a historical right to trade, known as franchise markets. This is complicated enough without throwing in Covid-19.
When farmers’ markets were given the green light to reopen, they were required to sift through the regulations issued by the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI), and work together with Environmental Health Officers (EHOs) from the HSE to ensure correct implementation of regulations into a new set of guidelines for each market. An awful lot of work if all you want to do is sell apples...
The bigger picture for the markets was to reopen and stay open: adapt and overcome. I wanted to get an understanding of how our farmers’ markets are adjusting to trading in the new normal.
The markets at Midleton, Mahon and Skibbereen are Cork’s three biggest and best attended markets, operating year-round, rain or shine, through Covid and commerce.
Michele Cashman is co-founder of Ballinrostig Cheese and a member of the committee for Midleton Market.
“Markets are a huge outlet for producers,” she says. “Many don’t have a lot of other places to sell, like supermarkets, because these are artisan producers. We were very happy to get back, it did require a good amount of set up and thought and planning.
“All stalls have hot and cold water, hand sanitizer, we have sanitizer at the gate, and a lot of stall holders are choosing to wear face shields or face masks.
“We are really lucky that Climate Aware Midleton volunteered to steward the gate for us — they believe in local producers selling food locally and wanted to support us.
“We mainly try to manage the numbers in the market internally, making sure queues don’t become too long.
“We chalk mark out the ground for social distancing and every stall holder manages their own queue. If queues become too long, then we will restrict people coming into the market.
Michele added: “There’s a bit of extra work in managing that, and we take it very seriously because we want to do right by the public, we want to be seen to be doing the correct thing and we want to stay open.
“We do need the co-operation of our customers. Obviously, there may be times when the queue is a little frustrating; facemasks and visors mean communication is different; but most are just happy to have the market reopen and comply.
“We don’t see farmers’ markets as an event — it is a shopping occasion where you buy local food. It’s like going to a supermarket except it’s outside!
“We have a very loyal customer base who really appreciate what they have: access to local artisan food produced by local producers; and we have a really long history with them — they are real shoppers.
“We have to keep the crowd moving and shopping as opposed to hanging around, so we don’t have any music or seating in the market. We’re being really careful around safety while trying to balance that with the experience, to keep it as pleasant as possible for people. But it isn’t easy!”
Michele said: “People are ordering more online with stallholders so they can just collect and go, and while we still take cash, there’s been an increase in customers choosing to pay by contactless and more vendors are facilitating that.”
Rupert Hugh Jones is the Market Organiser for Mahon Farmers’ Market.
“Before Covid, I spent 15 years fitting in as many people as I possibly could in our small area on the Western Plaza of Mahon Point Shopping Centre. And that’s what people liked — the hustle and bustle,” he says.
“We were fortunate when we did reopen because the shopping area was still closed, it was like ghost town here. The Shopping Centre manager, who has always been supportive, said we could take whatever space we needed, so we doubled our space with half the number of stalls and used the car park across from the plaza.
“We were the first wave of things to reopen in mid-May, and the first places people were allowed to go: for food shopping, bump into friends and have a chat. There was a nice boost when we first started.
“I think probably the first month was the busiest we’ve ever been, and I think that was because people wanted to support local business and get behind their local producers.
“It has been stressful, and some of our stall holders have an elderly relative or vulnerable person living in the house with them and didn’t feel comfortable opening straight away, so we were down stalls at the start by about half.
“We gave ourselves lots of space, and the HSE and EHOs were brilliant. They engaged with us intensely before we started and inspected us pretty vigorously for the first couple of weeks to ensure that we were complaint with the guidelines,” Rupert explained.
“The FSAI guidelines emphasise not making markets a social gathering, so we’ve taking away anything that might encourage people to hang around and have a nice time, which is a pity because that’s the really nice part of the market: no musicians, demonstrations or tastings, and no food or drink to be eaten on the actual market premises — everything to be wrapped and taken away.
“The stall holders had to make some radical changes to comply with the guidelines. Loose food must be covered and there are a lot more screens in front of stalls now. Instead of produce being on display in large open baskets, it’s all pre-bagged. People are preordering for click and collect, pay for an order online, come to the market and pick up a bag ready for you.
“Our market is as essential as one can be –— in fact, there was no need for us to close but we felt it was the right thing to do. I didn’t want to create a fuss and I didn’t have anyone arguing with me that it was a bad call to close the markets — although we weren’t expecting to be closed for six weeks.
“We’re grateful to still be in business, we’ve been through an awful lot and we don’t know what’s ahead of us really. I imagine things will get worse as we head into winter, more local fluctuations and localised lockdowns and restrictions, but I don’t think we will ever close again.”
David Louks, a free-range chicken farmer and Chairman of Skibbereen Market, also gave an update as to where they are currently at.
“Skibbereen Farmers’ Market is what’s known as a Franchise Market. We have a historical right to trade as a Market but not a Casual Traders market like Bantry and Clonakilty, (both Council run under Casual Trading Laws). It’s a historical quirk, and why we’ve been campaigning so hard to keep the market open. Because we’re not under the Casual Trading Laws, we aren’t classed as an essential retail service, we’re classed as a public gathering. When we reopened the Market, we were told we had to reduce the total number in the Market to a maximum of 200 people: to include traders and customers. We have 120 stalls at the peak of summer.
“On the first day we came back, we had 24 hours’ notice to try and get something together to comply with regulations. We got equipped with walkie talkies, click counters, all these things to help us run one of the largest markets in Ireland. There was a large gardaí presence, and they were over the moon with what we had managed to get done. They’ve been very impressed with the way we’re doing things — we are more than capable of organising ourselves. It’s important people know that by helping us they’re helping to keep the Market open.
“Because we are so limited by numbers, we made the decision to reduce the number of stalls to allow in more customers. The ones that trade year-round and sell perishables like fresh veg, meat and fish get priority. We have a rotating system for craft stalls, they’ve been very good about it.
“We are very much a social market, that element of the market had to take the hit. The atmosphere has changed hugely. One stall holder remarked that there is no soul left in the market, but the most important thing of course is that we are still open.
“Shopping outdoors, shopping local, shopping without fear: it’s those little bits and pieces that people say: let’s go to Skibb market, it’s a blustery day and it’ll be fabulous!
“During lockdown, I got talking to a fellow trader and Neighbourfood came up. We began offering pre-orders and pre-payment with collection at our usual market spot. Neighbourfood collection day is the same as Market Day. The collection point is away from the main cut and thrust of the market, so older people and ones with health vulnerabilities don’t have to come into the main part of the market. They have their prearranged time to collect and off they go.
“The innovation of markets never ceases to amaze me. Once people get used to the idea of booking their food, people like it and it encourages them to come week in and out. Over time you get to know your customers, ask how they are getting on, how their families are doing.
“Our market is a good old-fashioned store without a roof! In a way we are going back to go forward; there should be more markets like ours — not less.”