Words DENISE IRVINE | Images ALEX SPODYNEIKO
On a miserable winter morning 15 years ago, my husband talked me out from the depths of a warm duvet to go to the recently opened Hamilton Farmers’ Market.
I was very reluctant. It was a freezing, sleety-wet Waikato day, and I honestly didn’t feel like ducking between flimsy gazebos to buy a few vegetables. Bill saw it differently. He loved the new market, and he wanted to support it. “If we don’t use it, we’ll lose it,” he said.
So we went. I don’t remember what we bought, but as always, with the market, there was goodwill and good produce. I’ve been a regular since opening day; I like to know where my food comes from, and I like to support local.
The market began on Sunday, March 5, 2006, in the Wintec car park on the fringe of the CBD. There were about 15 stalls run by local growers and producers who offered the ‘paddock to plate’ philosophy of authentic farmers’ markets worldwide, where goods must be regionally grown or processed, and sold directly from producer to customer.
In the beginning the Hamilton market ran fortnightly, and this then stepped up to weekly. A bit later the overarching Waikato Farmers’ Markets was formed, and it included Cambridge Farmers’ Market, held each Saturday in Victoria Square. Many stallholders sell at both markets.
As the Hamilton market expanded, it outgrew the Wintec car park, moved to the bigger and more sheltered Sonning car park in River Road, then to Te Rapa Racecourse, before finally landing in the perfect place, a refurbished rustic barn in the grounds of Claudelands Events Centre.
Fleur Foreman was another who shopped at the market in its earliest days. She was newly married, and she remembers the pleasure of buying fresh produce such as baby spinach directly from growers. “It was so good to finally have a market in Hamilton.”
Nowadays, Fleur is more than a shopper; she is the Hamilton market manager, and on this sunny Sunday she pauses briefly to talk about her long-time attachment. “I love the food and the atmosphere. There is less packaging with this food. It’s fresh, and there is always a good conversation to be had.”
Fleur is with market administrator Kathryn Hunter, who has the Quarter Acre Kitchen stall, making colourful condiments from homegrown or locally sourced fruit and vegetables. Kathryn loves her customers; it’s as much about talking to people as the food. “It’s a really good local place to be.”
Today there are upwards of 50 stalls, and the crowds are loading bags with Waikato summer pickings of tomatoes, zucchini, eggplants, beetroot, sweet corn, capsicums, lettuces, watermelons and blueberries. As well as the likes of sourdough bread, condiments, fish, eggs, meat, honey, baking, fresh pasta, milk, and more.
Some of the original stallholders have remained stalwarts, enjoying their long-time customers and welcoming new ones. Among the originals today is the familiar face of Ian Kerr, The Lettuce Man, selling a goodly variety of lettuces and herbs; the de Jong family from Southern Belle Orchards, Matamata, with abundant capsicums and chillies; Roy Borlase, from The Front Gate, with freshly picked grapes and passionfruit; and Marije and Richard Banks, from Monavale Blueberries, New Zealand’s largest BioGro NZ certified organic blueberry orchard.
Marije says that as well as selling fresh blueberries at their stall in season, the family set up an ice cream truck especially for the market. “We’ve always loved the direct feedback from customers, and we’ve developed new products as a result.”
Jono Walker, from Soggy Bottom Holdings, purveyor of fresh meat, small goods and handmade pies, and Mike Jobling, from Essenza Coffee, are also originals. They’ve had neighbouring sites since the first market. Jono reckons they’ve shared lots of comforting coffee on cold winter days, and sometimes an early morning nip of brandy to get started.
Mike’s freshly roasted coffee has a strong following; he doesn’t want to let people down, so he turns out on Sundays to work the espresso machine. Today they’ll do about 450–500 coffees. “It’s gone a bit nutty, really, but I enjoy coming and talking to customers.”
Jono says something similar: “People come back because you’re here. It keeps you going.” Jono is president of the national body, Farmers Markets New Zealand, and he’s recently been involved in price comparison research between goods bought at farmers markets and supermarkets throughout the country, comparing like with like. Farmers markets, he says, came out a bit cheaper in most places.
The research echoes earlier price surveys by long-time market shopper and supporter Lex Chalmers, of Hamilton, a geographer with an interest in rural and community development. Lex has enjoyed watching the market grow, and he especially likes it as a point of social connection. “We need these points of connection. For me, the Farmers Market is one of them. It is a vital and enabling environment.”
New stallholders are regularly drawn to this environment. At Claudelands, these include Piū Blu Pasta, handcrafted by Leo Parodi; Mushrooms by the Sea, run by Emily Eldin and Sean Mills, selling fresh and dehydrated oyster mushrooms; and Earth Stewards, a small, thoughtfully planted urban farm near Rototuna, managed by Coral Remiro. Customer loyalty is a key part of these businesses, as it is with the originals.
As Coral weighs a bag of plump outdoor tomatoes for me, she says Earth Stewards has built a hugely loyal base. “It’s like family.”
One of Leo Parodi’s customers beams as he packages ravioli for her: “I’m a regular,” she says. “I don’t buy my pasta from anywhere else, just this market. I miss him [Leo] if he’s not here.”
It’s certainly worth getting out of bed for in mid-winter.