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Barbara Panvel traces the rise and rise of farmers' markets - and throws down a challenge to readers of The Stirrer.

Trouble with public transport, a legal system so expensive that only the very poor and the rich can seek justice, many collapsed pensions, a social security and tax system that penalises thrift, long waits for health care, a poor public transport system, employers disappointed by poorly educated entrants, news repeated at every bulletin of violence against the young, the weak and the different - the list could go on - and on.

There are, however, changes for the better brought about by inspired individuals which should become more widely known. Here is the first . . .

In the 80s and 90s large numbers of food producers were becoming bankrupt, because the low prices they were given for their meat, milk, fruit and vegetables did not cover the costs of producing them. Food was stale - travelling long distances by truck and plane - and doused with chemical fertiliser, pesticide, fungicide and herbicide.

This has changed: we are now able to get some organic and/or local food from farm shops, box schemes and even supermarkets - albeit at a higher price. As a result many food producers have been saved from bankruptcy and are able to make a better living, their suppliers have survived and the local economy has been strengthened.

How did these changes come about?

In 1975 Helena Norberg-Hodge, a young Swedish academic, went to study the Ladakhi language in that remote and mountainous country near Tibet. She valued the traditional culture of this tolerant, self-sufficient happy people with closely-knit families and communities. As the Indian government began to promote the country as a tourist destination, however, subsidised food was trucked in from India and sold in the markets cheaply, undercutting local produce. Men began to leave their farmsteads to find work in the capital, Leh, which was now experiencing air pollution, and congestion for the first time.

She began to question the conventional approach to progress and development and continued to return each year working with villagers in what later became the Ladakh project.

When she married an Englishman and settled here she saw that traditional practices in this country had also been disrupted. Food which could have been produced locally was imported - travelling across continents. People were moving to the towns and cities or commuting long distances. Food producers were leaving the land in large numbers and fertile land and skills were being lost.

As a student in America she had seen the popular farmers'markets in California and thought that, by cutting out the middleman, food producers in Britain could also get the full price by selling wholesome food directly to the public.

She joined the Soil Association and tried to convince them to support this idea - at first with no success. But with her husband John, she raised funds to employ a Food Links officer for one year and this proved so successful that the Soil Association took him on - and the local food movement began to get under way.

Now farmers markets are a regular sight in British high streets, and switched-on shoppers hunt down local produce. A change has happened, for the better - notwithstanding the vice-like grip the supermarkets have on our high streets.

We now need another step forward to give small and family farmers a fair income and to serve customers who can't get to farmers' markets or farm shops or who find that box schemes don't suit their needs. There are local produce shops in a few market towns but we really need at least one in every town and city. They could stock goods made in the region as well as food grown there.

Has someone reading about this got the concern, silver tongue, energy and enterprise to start the ball rolling?


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