With its 15th anniversary in sight, Carlow’s food marketeers have cause to celebrate. During its short existence it has presented a strong image to town and country, at its height attracting a turnover of half a million euros.
Founded in August 2004 as the direct result of a local enterprise scheme to energise the community, John Hayden, the local rural resource worker put in charge of the project, had posed the question: ‘Would you be interested in a food-only / producer-only market, with handicrafts once a month?’
Consumers and producers alike said they would.
It was agreed there should be two stallholders each of bread, fish, meat and vegetables – for variety and competition – because these foods were seen to be essential to the success of a food market. There were 16 stallholders.
It got off to a good start. The town council adopted a hands-off approach. The original stallholders became Carlow Farmers Community Market, took out collective and individual insurance to indemnify the town council against claims (there have been none).
They registered as a group with the revenue commissioners, acquired licences from the Health Service Executive to trade in the space provided by the council in the centre of the town. In turn the council passed a bye-law to allow the group to trade on a Saturday between 9 am and 2 pm. Local businesses supported the market.
Then the mood changed.
The market has an ageing population and hardly any young blood coming through. There is a shortage of bread and pastry makers, vegetable growers and artisanal producers.
And the group is shrinking. There are now only ten stallholders.
There is a strong feeling in Carlow and in the country in general that the attitude of the state towards small-scale producers who are not interested in the export market must be challenged, for the sake of local, seasonal food production.
Vegetable growers Charles and James Ryan had their growers license withdrawn by the Department of Agriculture over an auditing issue with new guidelines by the Food Safety Authority of Ireland that got blown out of proportion when arbitration would have resolved the problem.
The fact that they have been closed down and ordered off the market for an issue that has nothing to do with food safety angered market goers. A petition in support of the Ryans was signed by over 100 people on one morning of a cold January day.
There is a constant fear that more stallholders will be lost. Jimmy Mulhall, who sells organic meat and meat products, has been researching food markets, travelling to France to see their models and looking at the closed markets in Dublin. If he decides to move his business indoors there is a possibility he will not bring his truck to town for the open market.
Raw-milk cheese-maker Elizabeth Bradley has been under investigation by the authorities and is determined not to be forced out of business or out of the market, where she sells cheeses from Ireland, France and other countries.
Other threats to the market include the town council’s plans for the space the stalls presently occupy, the lack of a manager to deal with bureaucratic problems (like the Ryans), logistical issues (like new stallholders) and marketing issues (like the website and general awareness).
Nadja Saralam, an Australian who works at the cheese stall, says Carlow needs its food market. ‘It is a growers / producers only market. So everything is grown and produced locally, and you can talk to the vendors about their growing methods and environmental values, and be comfortable in what you’re buying. You’re dealing with the people who really do produce what they sell, and know the food terrain.’
‘I love grabbing a bunch of carrots, and knowing they were pulled from the ground only a few hours previously. You certainly can’t beat the quality of the food you buy there, and prices compare to supermarkets. I no longer bother to shop anywhere else.’
Saralam is full of praise for the local producers. ‘I believe one of the best things you can do for the planet is to buy locally from responsible producers, and primarily eat seasonal, non-imported foods. Despite Ireland having lost its cheese culture, there is still a really good selection of Irish cheeses on the market. The stall at the Carlow market is run by a cheese maker who farms and produces cheese just four kilometres from my house – you can’t get better than that!’