Beverly Reed

 

The first farmers’ market in the UK was set up in Bath in 1997. Food markets existed before that, of course. But the idea of a farmers’ market was unique: for farmers to be directly in contact with the customers in their vicinity. Stephen Shearman was the entrepreneur who brought the concept to Monmouthshire on seeing the successes of the Bath prototype. He started with a small gathering in Llanishen Village Hall in 1998 and went on to run regular markets in Usk and Abergavenny. Both markets exist today and have retained many of their original customers.

In setting up a market, Stephen was driven by a desire to live a more sustainable lifestyle, after having already created a co-operative in London selling organic foods. His relationship with ‘good’ food started very early on when, as a young boy growing up in Cornwall, Stephen enjoyed his aunt’s home-cooked pasties and the traditional breads his mum went to great lengths to locate. ‘Food was magic,’ he exclaims.

Farmers’ markets were establishing in the UK against a back-drop of agricultural disasters: the Salmonella scare affecting chickens in the 1980s, followed by the BSE crisis, which was at its peak in 1992. There is ample reason to look to farmers markets for food security. As Stephen says:

“Direct contact between food producers and customers allows for the development of trust.”

That mechanism for trust-building was clearly needed during and after the crises within the meat industries during the 1980s and 1990s. Today, in an age of industrialization and technological revolution, there is still an ongoing need to reconnect with farmers and food producers from whom we know we can access safe, fresh and minimally processed foods.

Stephen speaks of his family’s relative comfort during the winter of 1947 because of their access to local and home-grown foods. In more recent times, the producers at the Monmouthshire farmers’ markets were able to offer the same local, resilient food system to their communities during the COVID 19 pandemic.

Beverly Reed is a patisserie and chocolate maker who has been supplying both the Usk and Abergavenny markets since 2003. She describes the adaptability of the producer-collective:

“Covid changed the nature of everyone’s relationship with the customers. I would get up at 3 a.m. and bake and then I’d do deliveries and that was tough at times. But for both the customers and for me it was good to have the social interaction. There was a compassionate and caring exchange there that you wouldn’t get in a supermarket.”

Beverly emphasizes the benefits of the long-established relationship. The regulars at the market come to understand the seasonal nature of the produce, and how unexpected events can impact food supply, such as when a fox attack at one producer’s farm left chickens in short supply for several weeks. Consumers are put in direct contact with what is happening in the fields.

Thanks to Stephen’s vision and the persistence of the producers, the markets today are full of locally baked pies, croissants, cheeses and meats. The Usk farmer’s market has fresh fruit and veg supplied by Paul’s Organic Veg, as well as breads, eggs, honey and jams. There are also guest producers. In the past, they’ve come selling a host of treats, from mushrooms, to microgreens, to Welsh cakes.

The challenge for Beverly and others is in maintaining a sustainable income whilst encouraging customers to invest in their produce: ‘It’s about the longevity. You do well if you stick at it and build your following.’ However, for producers like Beverly, the wait is worth it: ‘This is where my passion is. It’s about serving my customers good quality food at affordable prices.’

Stephen isn’t involved with the market anymore. He’s taken a step back and these days gives his attention to growing food in his own garden. However, twenty-six years since that first gathering in the Llanishen Village Hall, the farmers, producers and their clientele are still meeting: some have been meeting and talking about food for many years. Stephen’s legacy, more than anything, is the forum he created for conversations about what ‘good’ food is and how we can access it.