The day was mild, no rain, no gale blowing, but where were the customers last week at the Farmers’ Market down on Strand Quay – and, indeed, this Wednesday morning? Fewer than half a dozen were in evidence.
The vendors’ stalls were attractively and temptingly laid out as usual. The produce was for the most part locally sourced – fresh fish, potted shrimps and crab-meat from Jasper Botterell of Rye Harbour, and pheasants, smoked meats, wild boar and venison from VJ Game of Broad Oak, Brede.
Kristin Watt-Bonar is offering home-made quiches, cakes and hot dishes, all made in her grade II listed cottage kitchen in Hawkhurst, and recently awarded five star rating ; and Andrew Lerwill has been selling plants, shrubs and perennials, grown at the family farm in Bethesden, almost since the market began.
For fresh vegetables in season it is Philip Ashton-Cobb who is sought out by his appreciative clientele and then there are fine cheeses and charcuterie from The French Delicatessen, which caters for many Kentish and Sussex gourmets at local farmers’ markets.
One trader acknowledged that business is not good in Rye: “They don’t seem to welcome us here”, he said. “In other towns and villages we set ourselves out in the main street, but in Rye we’re out on a limb where we are here”.
John Botterell, the market organiser, said : “It’s true that the location is not ideal, but there’s really no suitable alternative. The High Street is not practical, and we’re conscious in Rye that we need to co-exist with the established traders, who have to earn their livings and pay their rates. The Thursday market would suit us, but our previous approaches have been rejected.”
Conditions have changed over the fifteen years since the Farmers’ Market started. It was part of a national movement then to source fresh local food and to support the farmers who had suffered badly in the BSE and foot and mouth disease crises. But more recently, new farm shops have become established, with their wider range of produce and some supermarkets pride themselves on sourcing local produce.
“It’s a combination of lack of consumer support here and too few producers”, said John Botterell. “We have our faithful regular stall-holders, some of whom have been with us from the beginning, but it is very hard to interest new ones”.
The Market is struggling to remain profitable – it has to pay £40 per week to the Environment Agency. It is the only user required to do so, claims Biddy Cole, treasurer. By way of comment, the essence of an open air market is only partly the perceived good value of the produce on offer. To be successful, a market must also serve as a regular meeting place where friends and neighbours can catch up on news and gossip. The future of the Farmers’ Market lies in the hand of its customers – the maxim “use it or lose it” was never more true.
The last opening date this year is December 23, and the market will re-open before Scallop Week in February 2016.
Photo: Kenneth Bird