In this edition of Marketplace, we go to an actual outdoor market. We braved the cold Easter weather this past Saturday and visited one of the city’s popular farmers markets, on Prague’s Jiřího z Poděbrad square.
At the most recent farmers market on Prague’s Jiřího z Poděbrad square, a band was playing for those market goers who came out despite the cold and grey weather – surprisingly many, actually. Since their introduction in Prague some two years ago, farmers markets have been a hit with the Czech capital’s residents. Jiří Sedláček, who organizes three such markets at different locations across Prague, got the inspiration to bring back this lost tradition when he returned to the Czech Republic from a holiday in Switzerland. He approached officials at City Hall, who asked him to design a concept and come up with possible locations for outdoor markets.
“So we came up with 26 of them, and in many of those places, today, farmers markets are being held. First we opened the one on Kubanské náměstí in May 2010, then in June we opened the one near the Vltava River, on the Náplavka, or pier, and then this market here, on Vinohrady’s Jiřího z Poděbrad square, in September 2010. So it was in a matter of a few months that we opened the three markets we organize today. We really did not expect that it would be that successful, such a boom, and grow to be such a big thing.”
While exact sales figures of his farmers markets are impossible to compile – Jiří Sedláček’s organization Farmařské Tržiště rents out stands to individual farmers, and they do not report their sales to him – the number of visitors has remained stable following the first boom. Some 3000 to 4000 people come each day that the market operates – which is on Wednesdays from 8 to 6 p.m. and on Saturdays from 8 to 2 p.m. In addition, other organizations host farmers markets in the capital. Across the country, there are nearly 200 different weekly farmers markets, and their number has been growing.
Despite a rain shower and unseasonably cold weather, the market I recently visited was rather crowded. I asked some shoppers what brings them here.
“Because usually, you can find some organic vegetables here, and fresh fish – I just bought some great fish here. And I also enjoy that they sometimes have music, it’s a nice touch on a Saturday morning.”
“Yes, I am glad we finally have this in Prague. I was waiting for this for a long time, because of course I know that such markets exist in other countries in Europe. But I think there is still room for improvement, especially with the vegetables, I think there could be a greater variety.”
Why did you come to the farmers market, and what did you just buy?
“I got some onions, garlic and potatoes, because they are from Czech farmers and I really like that. It’s very nice when you can buy something not in Tesco, but directly from the producer.”
And can you tell that the quality is better?
“Yes, definitely. I can smell it, I can taste it, that it is something different from regular supermarket fare.”
Despite their popularity, the farmers markets were not spared their share of food scandals. In recent weeks, cases of vendors selling supermarket herbs or Polish tomatoes under the label of quality Czech food made headlines in the local media. The State Veterinary Administration, a part of the Ministry of Agriculture in charge of quality assurance of agricultural goods, last year controlled some 232 markets, and found some 74 cases in which the quality of products sold was not up to par. However, such incidents are usually isolated, say those who operate the markets. How do organizers deal with black sheep? I put the question to Mr Sedláček.
“We try to solve these cases in a very clear and quick way. As soon as we find out that a vendor is selling goods that don’t fulfill the standards we have agreed upon with them in our contract, we take it off the stands, and should something similar happen again, we may choose to ban the vendor from operating at our markets. This has only happened in isolated cases, but we reacted quickly. We want our markets to offer goods of traceable origin and impeccable quality.”
Czech farmers have welcomed the arrival of the markets. Many say that they are finally able to get fair prices for their goods, since they no longer have to rely on wholesale clients and big chain stores to purchase their goods. One such farmer is Ivan Kostka, who sells vegetables in Prague almost every week.
“I have been doing this all my life, and by now, it is more a question of persisting than anything else. So I also brought my children up to be farmers. We don’t grow rich; the money we make here is about enough to survive. I would really welcome it if the Ministry of Agriculture supported us farmers more. Without us, there would be nothing but weeds growing in this country.”
“I think that a lot of small farms and small-scale farmers and producers have been able to recover from bad business conditions in the past thanks to the farmers markets. They have found a new way to sell their goods, and that has been the problem in the past. Big corporations and chains do not buy goods from such farmers for two reasons: First of all, they are not able to deliver the volume that these wholesale clients require, and secondly, and because they offer them very low prices, which are not lucrative for them. So at the market, they skip the middleman, they can offer their customers a fair price and they can get direct customer feedback. If you sell cheese and a shopper tells you that the cheese is too salty, then as a vendor, you can react to that immediately, and add less salt next time.”
Aside from being open for regular market business nearly year-round, Sedláček’s network of farmers markets also holds special events that highlight seasonal produce from the Czech Republic.
“On the Náplavka, we want to create a sort of food court, where all the snacks and meals will be concentrated. So after shopping, the market goers can have a coffee or a meal, for a fair price. Then we have different celebrations, for example the Festival of Czech Asparagus on April 21, then we have a Rosé Wine event in May, and then a microbrew festival in Žižkov, in Parukářka park, where visitors can sample all kinds of artisan beers, and that will take place on June 8 and 9.”
While there may be room for improvement, one thing is certain: the farmers markets are here to stay.