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STRICT RULES MAKE PRODUCE MARKETS WORK

Every Thursday morning, Brid McAuley unlocks the doors to Westport Town Hall, turns on the lights in the dark, echoing main room and, with a colleague, carries twelve folding tables from the stack in the kitchen and arranges them in a horseshoe along the two long walls and across the front of the stage.

The craft stall at Westport County Market, May 1996. (photo: Frank Dolan)
Then from her battered estate car outside she carries in boxes and sacks of herbs and vegetables she and her husband Chris have grown on their organic two-acre smallholding about four miles out of town. "When we're at the height of the season, I have to make two car journeys to bring in everything we have" she says.

From nine o'clock onwards other people begin to arrive with things to sell too. They cover the table tops with American cloth and stack bread, buns and cakes on the tables to the left of the hall, knitted goods and other crafts to the right, and vegetables at the top end. Jams and lemonades go in the top left corner beside the free-range eggs, most of which are already ordered, and the plucked and dressed turkeys and hens. At the other end of the hall, two women are setting out tea tables, each with four chairs, where people will be able to sit for a snack. In the kitchen, sandwiches wait on trays and the boiler is on.

By ten o'clock, everything is ready. Over a dozen customers rush in as soon as the doors are opened to be sure of getting get the items they want. An hour later, the tea tables are full of customers laughing and talking while the bakery and vegetable tables are almost empty although the market still has another two hours to run.

Give or take a few details, the scene I have just described is repeated once a week in seventy-four other towns and villages in Ireland and 538 in Britain - the places in which Country Markets Ltd in Ireland and WI Markets in England, Wales and the Channel Islands have branches. Both organisations are very similar in that they grew out of the two countries' associations of countrywomen, the Irish Countrywomen's Association (ICA) and the Women's Institute (WI), and the Irish body adopted many elements from the WI's operating manual when it opened its first market in Fethard, Co. Tipperary, in 1946. The first British market had opened in Lewes, Sussex, twenty-seven years earlier to enable WI members, unemployed people, pensioners and ex-servicemen to sell surplus garden produce. However, relatively few markets opened until the depression in the 1930s when, after a request from the Ministry of Agriculture that the WI help feed the nation, a grant from the Carnegie Trust enabled the movement to expand.

That both original markets are still trading is in large part due to the rigid operating systems the two national organisations use. It is worth looking at these in some detail particularly as, in Ireland at least, they are regarded as highly confidential. "No business would tell anyone who asked exactly how it operated" says Mary Coleman, the chief executive (her job title is secretary) of Country Markets Ltd., the co-operative society of which every Irish market is a branch. "Why should we?"

Let's start with the procedures for opening a new market. "If any market member is approached by a person or a group in another area with a view to starting a branch market" the Irish manual says, "Country Market's Central Office should be notified immediately so that the Society's Secretary may attend any meetings to explain the Society's aims, rules and function." In fact, Mary Coleman will travel out from Dublin to attend at least four meetings before any market opens. At the first she describes how the markets operate and if, after that, sufficient people decide they want to go ahead, she will conduct a minimum of three workshops with them covering the duties that those elected as officers of the local branch will have to take on, how goods offered for sale must be labelled and packed, and how the branch's records must be kept. The costs of these four meetings must be covered by a local voluntary organisation in order to ensure that the proposal to start a market has been widely discussed in the community and has gained a degree of support. In most cases, this sponsor will be the local branch of the Irish Countrywomen's Association but other organisations such as gardening clubs have backed start-ups in the past. Membership of the markets, while predominantly female, is open to both sexes in both countries.

After the workshops, those who attended are invited to become members of the Country Markets co-op by buying 3 worth of its shares and if a minimum of twenty do so and undertake to make or grow goods for the market on a regular basis, Mary Coleman is likely to recommend to the national committee of management that a new branch be formed and allowed to trade.

Nothing sold in a Country Market, not even the handcrafts, carries the maker's name. The label just carries a membership number written in black, and beside it, written in red to prevent confusion, the price. Moreover, the person who sells it to you is unlikely to have made or grown it and will be most reluctant to tell you who did. Why the anonymity? Aren't market members proud of their work? "Of course they are" says Mary Coleman, "but if the maker's name appeared on something, you could find that people who did not like that person would refuse to buy her produce. And if we allowed people to sell, for example, their bread and cakes as well as those made by other members, there would be a natural tendency for them to try to sell their own goods first. So it's best that everyone sells other people's produce. That way, they can be completely even-handed and neutral about it."

When members bring their goods into the market before it opens, they present the market controller with a duplicate book in which they have listed everything they have brought to sell. The controller not only checks the list against the quantities received but, in some markets at least, grades fresh fruit and vegetables according to their size and quality and checks the goods' presentation. "This grading is essential" says the Irish manual. "As it is the quality of the produce, its freshness and presentation that attracts customers, the Controller should not accept indifferent quality produce." The controller might also discuss the prices members are proposing to charge so that everyone operates on the same basis and does not undercut local shops: "The Society does not undersell" the manual states. If a market goes by the book, the only prices not based on their shop equivalents are those for cooked products such as bread, cakes and jam, which are priced at whatever the jar or Clingfilm wrapper cost plus twice the price of the ingredients and heat. "Regular 1lb (454grms) jam pots must be used and make sure there is no brandname on them [as this would] leave Country Markets Ltd open to prosecution" the manual says.

If a member takes away unsold goods at the end of the market, the Controller amends both copies of the delivery note, taking one copy herself and returning the other in the duplicate book to the member. Meanwhile, the market treasurer is totting up the takings to lodge in the bank. "From the day a market starts, every penny must be accounted for whether it is received or paid out. To achieve this, all money received must be lodged in the bank and all amounts must be paid by cheque" the manual emphasises.

Members do not get paid on market day for what has been sold but receive a cheque for a month's markets some time later from which a ten per cent commission has been deducted. Most of this levy goes to cover local costs such as the hire of the hall but just less than a third goes to head office where it pays the secretary's salary, accountancy fees and, most important of all, for insurances which cover against accidents the public might suffer on market premises during opening hours, the loss or theft of market money and any claims that might arise if people became ill after eating food sold from a market stall. Market members are also covered for any accidents which might happen to them from the moment they leave home on market business for the additional sum of 1 each per year.

Most markets find the 10% commission more than enough to cover the head office levy and their own expenses and the rules allow their members to vote on whether the surplus should be distributed amongst themselves or used to promote co-operative principles, pay for educational courses or support community activities. "We usually use ours for community activities" says Lilly Rider, the chairman of the Westport market. "We're frequently approached for funds by groups like the Street Festival and the tourism committee."

Not every market has been a success of course and some have closed down. Mary Coleman says the most frequent cause of problems is a lack of commitment to the co-operative principle. "Many people have no idea what it means to be a co-operator" she says. "Dr. Muriel Gahan, one of the founders of our first market said that it took persistant goodwill. Of course, people are going to have to work with others they might not like but I can remember one lady telling me that she would regard it as her personal failure if she couldn't do so for even two or three hours a week."

Besides being secretive about their operating procedures, the Irish markets are also reluctant to speak about their total annual turnover: "Quoting a figure might give people the wrong idea. They could think it was all profit whereas, when you've deducted members' costs and made allowance for their time, they are getting very little per hour" Mary Coleman explains, ever fearful that the taxman might become interested. The British are not so shy, however, and as part of their 75th anniversary celebrations in 1994, proudly announced that their turnover had grown from 1m. in 1972 to 10m. in 1992, an average of 18,600 a year per market. This might not seem much but it conceals huge differences in turnovers between markets and between the earnings of people within them.

About twenty people sell goods through the Westport market each week although the branch has over forty members. "You can get out of a Country Market as much as you put into it" Brid McAuley says. "Some people just bring along a few jars of jam each week. For them, it's primarily a social occasion. For others, however, the earnings are very important and it has become nearly equivalent to a part-time job. They might bake on Wednesdays, make jam at the weekend and knit in the evenings. Mary Coleman told us when she came down to set this market up that it would only provide a small supplement to our families' incomes but for some of us, it's doing much better than that. But then, you've got to remember that Westport is a particularly progressive market. If you go to some of them, it's just a few old ladies sitting around, which is fine if that's what they want. There's another market I can think of which people say reminds them of the war years and rationing. We've had some customers from there this morning and they said that they never go to their local market because it's too depressing."

No-one may belong to more than one Country Market and, although I cannot spot it in the manual, the Irish markets also have a policy of refusing membership to people who live more than ten miles or so from where the one they have applied to join is held. "This is because we believe that they should set up their own markets and not get involved in driving long distances" Brid McAuley explains.

Country Markets Ltd, Swanbrook House, Donnybrook, Dublin 4. Tel: +353 (0)1 6684784

W.I. Country Markets Department, 183a Oxford Road, Reading, Berks. RG1 7XA, U.K. Tel +44 (0)1189 394646, fax +44 (0)1189 384747, e-mail info@wimarkets.co.uk

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