The West Australian's ROB BROADFIELD goes to market for the Great Southern's freshest offerings . . .
"You won't find any fudge or cupcake stalls here," Ian Haines says with some pride.
It is a crisp, clear Saturday morning at the wildly popular Albany Farmers Market, and at 9.30 some of the stalls are already running out of produce.
Mr Haines, who runs the show, says savvy local punters queue at the front gates for the 8am opening to ensure they get the pick of the best.
The Albany Farmers Market is, according to national glossy food and wine magazine Vogue Entertaining + Travel, the best of its kind in Australia.
It's big news. But why?
"Farmers' markets are popping up everywhere. This one is different because it's all about the farmers. It was started by farmers, it's run by farmers," Mr Haines said. And if you're not a Great Southern farmer selling only what comes from your farm, you won't get a look in. "That's what's made it Australia's best," Mr Haines says.
That, some good timing, an increasing awareness of organic and seasonal produce, a backlash against supermarkets and the actions of former Court government agriculture minister Monty House, whose Progress Rural initiative in the late 1990s was instrumental in spawning organisations such as the Great Southern Region Marketing Association.
Albany farmer and wine producer Pamela Lincoln was one of the association's inaugural board members. She became a key driver in the development of the markets, now in their eighth year.
"It's taken us a long time, but it's fantastic what's happening down here now," she said.
Fantastic, too, for the Saturday shoppers crowding around Maureen Rowe's Billawarra Dairy stall, snapping up her yoghurt and haloumi cheese. "I make a good living out of just four cows," she said. Her busy natural yoghurt stall must be one of the only ones in the country where you can buy your yoghurt from the cow of your choice. Photos of Heidi, Gemma, Streisand and Babs adorn the stall. "And, yes, people do ask for yoghurt from their favourite cow," she laughed.
It's a similar story for Jo Plug from Spring Valley Farm, a vegetable and trout farmer who took the plunge into free-range pork - with old-fashioned breeds such as Berkshires and Hampshires - and was selling her pork for the first time on Saturday. "They (the pigs) live outdoors, eat vegetables and grains ... the meat is superb," she said.
"That's the thing about the markets. It gives farmers the confidence to go into new areas with some certainty." Small local producers bringing locally grown, often organic, produce to a regional centre once a week which is as much about community as it is about selling: it's the sort of thing they've been doing in the hilltop towns of Tuscany and the villages of France for a thousand years. An irony not lost on Pamela Lincoln.
"Funny, isn't it," she said. "We're just rediscovering something we've always known."
- West Australian 24th March 2010
It's become something of a Saturday morning ritual. We pack up our bags (cloth of course), throw the baby in her backpack and head down to the open air farmers market here in beautiful Albany, Western Australia.
There's the producers, braving cold winter winds in their flapping tents, or just visible behind the crowds of people in warmer weather. Their faces are familiar and they've come to be known to us according to their produce.
There's the 'vegie' family with their crates of broccoli, beans, swedes, beetroots, lettuces and all manner of other seasonal vegetables at mouthwatering prices.
The 'venison' man with his pies, sausages, steaks and shanks, who wraps a recipe in with your purchase.
We stop and chat to the 'apple' lady who weekly shared in the excitement of my growing pregnant belly last year and now hands a freshly sliced shard of 'pink lady' or 'sundowner' to the tiny sticky hand reaching from the backpack.
There's the bread lady, the 'asparagus' man and the 'mushroom' people. The cheery 'honey' man, the effusive 'free range pork' lady and of course, the 'egg' man.
I love the site of baskets brimming with fresh produce, of leeks and spring onions peeping from the top of calico bags. There are incredible wildflowers for five dollars a bunch, crunchy organic carrots and potatoes with the dirt still on.
There is ostrich, oranges, passionfruit, blueberry icecream, strawberries and jams. Doing the rounds of the market takes twice as long as it should as there are friends to be chatted to and catch ups to be organised - it's all part of the ritual.
This is not a supermarket chore to get over and done with, it's a part of weekend enjoyment. It's about knowing the people who grow your food, talking to them, and supporting them so that they keep bringing great food to our market. It's about community and it's why I moved out of the big city. I was there for the very first Albany farmer's market and I hope I don't ever see the last.