The fate of Frome farmers' market [WFJ #26]
After a rocky past couple of years at the Cheese & Grain, it’s adapt or die for SFM
In September 1998, the Frome branch of Somerset Farmers Markets opened in the main hall of The Cheese & Grain. It was was one of the first of its kind in the UK1, wanting to support producers and provide people with access to local produce made in more environmentally-friendly ways.
The market was an immediate hit. Louise Hall, coordinator of five of the total eight SFM markets, has run Frome’s for 16 years. She tells the WFJ about having to turn shoppers away. “Before opening, we'd have customers queuing to get in, and there'd be some traders saying, ‘let them in.’ And there'd be some saying ‘don't let them in, make them wait.’ Now, it's quite funny that was a problem.”
As Louise alludes, these days opening the monthly Frome market is met with a lull rather than a clamour. Consequently, some traders are losing money, which has made them consider their involvement – over the years, trader numbers have dwindled in the Cheese & Grain from 38 to 17, and the space is feeling a little cavernous as a result. “It's like putting on a little folk concert at Wembley Stadium,” says Louise.
It’s not known exactly why the market has declined so dramatically over the past couple of years. There are various theories: Could it be the lasting effects of COVID, where the market was shut for three straight months, and where shoppers got used to buying their groceries online? Or the rise in the cost of living, which has forced half of all Brits to spend less on food? Perhaps it’s to do with competition with the weekly Mendip Market2, held adjacent in The Cheese & Grain car park, which bolstered its trader lineup over the past 12 months?
Organisers, however, think the lack of visibility and the improvement of other food retail are the leading causes of the market’s poor turnouts, which despite SFM’s efforts marketing and advertising has not helped rectify.
“When we first set up,” Louise says, “we were one of the most exciting things happening in Frome. But in the last 24 years, the success of the local food movement is that you can buy local food everywhere. Which is a really positive thing.”
While it's true more options in accessing local, seasonal food exist than they did 20 years ago – such as with the Frome Food Hub, farm shops like White Row and Durslade, and innumerable online delivery platforms – few if any allow customers to meet the farmers themselves, hear about their ethos firsthand, and buy their wares at the fairest price.
Frome SFM 2.0
Of the eight total markets SFM runs in the county, Frome is the last to operate in a bricks-and-mortar location. “When the markets were first set up by Roger White,” Louise says, “he was very worried about climate change, and he thought the safest place to have the markets was indoors.
“He felt the weather was going to change so much and be so unreliable. Eventually though, we took all our markets outdoors because we didn't want to be hidden away in a hall – we wanted to be right in the centre of town. The only market we didn't do was the Cheese & Grain, because until recently it was so successful and there hadn't been any reason to reconsider.”
In her time with SFM, Louise has so far moved two markets – Keynsham and Midsomer Norton – from indoor to outdoor locations. Now, they’re in the centre of their respective towns, and are, anecdotally, visited by a broader range and demographic of people who, as Louise says, “wouldn't necessarily go out of their way for a farmer's market.”
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Something similar had to be considered, then, given Frome SFM’s past 12 months of trading. “Even people from the Frome Food Network had no idea that there was a farmers’ market,” Louise says. “It made me realise we can't just stay in the Cheese & Grain and wait for people to find us – we have to do what we've done in every other town and be right in the centre, actually part of the highstreet.”
During the market in June, SFM conducted a survey with stallholders about moving the market to a more visible location. Specifically, Boyle Cross at the bottom of Cheap Street, where Frome Town Council had offered space to trade – a space incidentally familiar to SFM, as it’s where they set up with 30 traders once a month as part of The Frome Independent.
Of the 19 SFM trader members questioned in the survey, five wanted the market to stay at the Cheese & Grain, while 11 said moving location was their preferred option. Those wanting to stay were either against the idea of Boyle Cross (perceived difficulty in parking and loading was a factor, as was the winter weather), or against the idea of leaving the Cheese – some traders had been here since the market’s inception, or close to it, and had built up a base of loyal regulars in that time. Many of those regulars, of a certain age and mobility, relied on the market’s proximity to the car park.
Even so, there are farmers who’ve traded at the market for years but aren’t against the move. “I think it's a good idea to give Boyle Cross a try,” says Colin Comben of cider and apple producer Honey Pot Farm, the other side of Yeovil. The July market was their last at Frome SFM. “We’ve been trading here for 15 years, and this was our best market when we started. [Our regulars] are sad we're going, but we can't afford to keep doing this market – we are quite a long way a way.”
Other stallholders, like Hollie Dibble who farms at Beech Ridge, realise moving the market would be far from unanimously popular. “I think it'll have positives and negatives,” she told the WFJ at July’s market. “Some traders have said it’s great – they’re hoping to get new customers that they’re losing because they’re lost in the hall. But the convenience for a lot of customers is an issue, and I've had quite a lot of angry customers here today. So we'll see how it turns out.”
That will certainly be the case in August, when Frome SFM has its first official market outside of the Cheese & Grain and at Boyle Cross. “I’m nervous,” says Louise of the relocation. “But I’m really excited because I hope we’re bringing the farmers to a wider range of customers. Hopefully people will recognise the brand and a lot of the producers they’ll see are doing both this market and the Independent.”
By that, Louise means the likes of Wootton Dairy, The Happy Forager, Root Connections, White Horse Microgreens, Bath Soft Cheese Co., Wainwright's Bee Farm, and Mike’s Pork will make an appearance at Boyle Cross, just like they do on Indie market days. The main difference, though, will be a renewed effort in putting the farmers and primary producers front and centre. “I feel like this is what will make it special,” Louise adds.
With customer numbers depleting, and more and more traders dropping out, ‘special’ will need to be a word describing SFM’s Frome reincarnation. But ‘survival’ also – the market, Louise says, “would have closed altogether” had it not secured another site. As to whether this will be enough to rally shoppers to its canopies, we’ll just have to find out.
Note: As of August 2022, the author has day-managed two Frome SFM markets. Still, and given the information available at the time, this story wants to provide as balanced a telling as possible
Bath farmers market, which opened a year prior to Frome’s, is thought to be the very first in the UK.