The weekend just past is one of my favourite in the month – Farmers’ Market Weekend. Getting out and speaking to you, the people who come out rain, hail or shine to buy our products and swap recipes and – sometimes – tell us how much they love us! I may have over egged that a wee bit!
It’s not always been like that though. I sat down to start writing about the farmers markets and how it all came to be. I realised that, in order to get to the good stuff, the produce and the community and that wonderful sense of everyone embracing what we do, I was going to have to explain the fury and the passion that started it all. It’s not all pretty – some of it you won’t agree with it – but it is as accurate a description of how I, and many of my farming friends and co-workers, felt at that time.
The time I’m referring to is the late nineties. What I refer to as the bad old days. There was an air of discontent around the farming community – it felt as though we were regarded as subsidy junkies… Worse! Subsidy Junkies who had tried to poison the public through BSC infected beef. Who had raped the countryside, grew Frankenstein-style GM food, all the while spending the taxpayers’ hard earned pound on fuel guzzling Range Rovers. Of course, it had the spin of the red top tabloid spewed all over it; we were most definitely the media fodder of choice at the time! The problem was – it wasn’t without some element of truth.
Here’s the scene setter: It was the mid-nineties, just before the bad old days I refer to above. My love of animals had started young – there’s a whole blog to come about racing pigeons! You see, I was born a tounie but I’ve been a fully paid up member of the teuchters for nigh on 20 years.
Back then I was sitting in a kind of parallel universe where the people I grew up with were completely alien to the people I worked with every day. They’d have been as well speaking a different language. But it didn’t bother me at first. As far as I was concerned at the time, I had landed my dream job as a shepherd.
I’d worked with sheep on and off for most of my adult life up until then but I now had full stock buying and selling responsibilities. My life was set. I had a wonderful wife, two cracking wee girls and a job that I felt proud to wake up each morning and do. Moreover, I was part of an industry that I firmly believed had helped to shape the country that I loved. Everything was perfect.
Looking back of course I was a wee laddie, still wet behind the ears. In all honesty, my understanding of the industry at that time was pretty limited and in some respects, shaped by my vision through the rose-tinted glasses I was wearing! I knew I sold fat lambs in the market on a Monday morning; I knew I tried to get the top price of the day and get Glenearn’s name in the local Courier the following Tuesday morning. But I had no idea where my lambs ended up – unless of course a local butcher bought them.
And then it came; the three letters that will strike fear in any farmer’s heart even now. BSC. Within six months of its announcement our trade had collapsed and livestock farming was under the siege of crucifying press and public alienation I spoke about at the start. I found myself having to defend the industry that had filled me with pride and given me a sense of purpose. And this defence was to the very people that I had grown up alongside. That divide in my life, the gap between town and country was widening to a cavern. It was frightening and it was enlightening – I saw both ends of what I began to realised was an unnecessary and ridiculous cultural divide.
My perfect world, it felt, was in danger of falling in around about me. And then came stage two; the Fury. After months of taking my lambs to market and virtually giving them away, there was a quote in the farming press by the incumbent Agricultural Government Minister Lord Sewel, it said.
If farmers wish to get out of their current crisis, they will have to market their way out of it.
I could not believe what I was reading. Here was the man who had our industry in his hands. “Market your way out of trouble.” I didn’t even know what that meant. I felt we were we being punished for this crisis that wasn’t our fault; poor prices and slow sales in the market place, and then abandonment by the very people who should have been protecting us in times of crisis.
I was up in arms. Old school, fire and brimstone, furious. We fed the country for Gods’ sake! Did he not realise how hard we worked? How difficult a job it was to work this land? He wanted us to “market our way out of trouble”? I knew… I knew it was bloody-minded arrogance from a typical politician. Or I thought I knew. You see, in hindsight, that damn statement is singularly the best piece of professional advice I’ve ever been given.
Here’s a wee insight into the mind of Jim Fairlie. My wife says I’m obsessive; I like to think its determination. The reality is she’s right! It was 1998 and no matter how hard I tried I just couldn’t get that man’s statement out of my head.
It bounced around in my frustratingly overactive brain, keeping me awake at night. It would be fair to say I over analysed his controversial statement; allowing it to generate question after question in my head.
How would we market our way out of trouble?
What the hell is our market?
Who can we sell to? Supermarkets? No, they didn’t want to deal directly(no local sourcing back then!)
Butchers ? They were going out of business ten a penny.
The continent? How does a farmer get access to a foreign market?
The livestock ring? That’s what we already do and the price we were getting was terrible!
There was nowhere to turn.
It was September 1998; holidays were a bit of a rarity for us in our early years of marriage but having had a bloody awful year I was convinced my wife may kill me if I didn’t relax and enjoy some time with my family. We decided to go on a caravan camping holiday to the Vendee in France. It was probably the wettest autumn they had experienced in a decade, of course it was….! Now, I’m not great at sitting still for longer than five minutes so I was often up and about looking for something to do. It was on one of these forays that I came across a small poster advertising a local market. I persuaded Anne it was better than praying to the sun God, so off we went.
And people, that was when it happened. My Eureka moment. We walked into this bustling, smelly, colourful, noisy, happy place. People were selling clothes, leather, eggs, fish and chickens (live and dead you understand!). Hams were being sliced on filthy chopping boards by a 90 year old woman with a snottery nosed five year old beside her, and a pup under the table eating the falling scraps. I fell in love. And I turned and said to Anne, “This is it”. I knew exactly what I had to do.
See me, Anne and Caitlin (no longer 3!) At Perth Farmers’ Market on the 1st Saturday of the month and Stockbridge Community Market on the 1st Sunday of the month.