I yam what I yam

Peter Halford
Peter Halford

MAnawatu's Peter Halford remembers childhood dreams of becoming the biggest yam grower in the world.

"When I left school all I wanted to do was grow yams," he said from behind his stall at the Feilding Farmers Market.

"I tried to sell them but nobody knew what they were. By the grace of God I kept trying to get them popular, and now, of course, they are.'

Twenty-three varieties of yams in shades of yellow, pink, apricot and cream nestle in plates. Skins are shiny and smooth; these yams are far prettier than supermarket stock.

Halford has put in a rare appearance at the farmer's market which has just been voted the country's best.

His son and daughter-in-law now run the business based in Kiwitea near Kimbolton, but it's to him that customers seem to gravitate, sensing he's the one with a story to tell. Yarns about fresh or unusual produce mark out a farmers market. It's the conversations, for example, about how to cook a yam that enrich an experience often deadened down in the rush around a supermarket in double quick time.

Halford's great grandfather came from England to join the colonial police force. During a stop in Chile he picked up yam tubers and brought them to New Zealand, planting them in Whanganui. In the 1960s great grandson Peter began commercial production and established the first markets.

"We supply the whole of New Zealand," he tells me. Dreams of world yam domination now seem fulfilled. "I was in South America a few years ago where they hold the seed bank of tubers . . . They said that because we grow over 100 acres of them I would have the biggest in the world."

He grins at the thought of it.

The Halfords joined the Feilding market, which runs every Friday from 9am-2pm, about a year ago. The grocery industry is tight; this is a way of reaching different customers.

Feilding's Farmers Market is bustling and smart. Musicians play under a canopy, a cooking demonstration is taking place, an All Black is even in town - all this despite a cold wind. It's in the centre of town on Manchester Square with many other shops around and it's impossible to miss. There are at least 20 stalls selling fruit and veges, hot tater curlies (potatoes on a stick), meat, beverages, relishes, sauces, plants, sweets and treats.

Fellow stallholder Remus Mihaila is based near Otaki, at least an hours drive away, but he heads north every Friday morning.

Selling apple brandy, liqueurs, cider and vinegar, he came to New Zealand from Romania eight years ago.

"In Romania everybody makes these," he says, running his hand across bottles arranged in neat lines. "What you see on the table, each family does in their own home." He does three farmers markets a week: He goes to Otaki on Saturday where moves are afoot to shift it from car boot craft to farmers' market freshness, as well as another in Wellington.

In between handing out samples he talks with intensity about what constitutes a good farmers market. "Passion for food - good food - not passion for money."

A couple of months ago Lorna and Roger Dix of Whanganui booked a Feilding spot. Relishes, soups, and specialties like balsamic pickled onions make their stall unique, say the couple, who have turned a kitchen hobby into a boutique business. The freshness, quality of goods and prices are what farmers markets are about, reckons Roger Dix.

The origin of food is also key. "I was in Countdown the other day and I picked up a big packet of chips and they came from a country I'd never heard of."

Jeanette Loader co-ordinates the market from her office at Feilding Promotion.

She enthuses about it being named top farmers market in the country midway through July.

"It's a great boost of pride and enthusiasm for everyone - the management team, stallholders and the community at large. It motivates everyone to raise the benchmark and continue to provide even better quality product, and service and vibrancy."

There's also the "enormous marketing opportunity". (She's right. I was heading to Manawatu anyway, but may not have called in if it hadn't just been given the national accolade).

"We hope that it will result in more visitors to Feilding, an increase in customers and more dollars in stallholders pockets."

The market began on a Friday seven years ago to tie in with activity at the local saleyards.

She says the national win was based on customer votes. While she doesn't know how many votes Feilding pulled in, she understands it was several thousand.

When asked what makes a good farmers market, Loader's answer is succinct: Good management.

Other spinoffs are the satisfaction that customers receive in talking to producers and growers, learning where produce is from, how it's grown, how to cook it - and the chance to taste, she says.

In New Plymouth the city's farmers' market is resident at Huatoki Plaza. That's the winter spot, explains Richard Sheldrake, an organic fruit and vege grower, as well as chairman of the trust running the market.

There's been criticism of the location with some arguing it should be positioned there all year round. In spring and summer the trust runs the market from a portion of Currie St, closed off for the express purpose. Sheldrake says Huatoki Plaza would be too small in summer when up to 24 stallholders turn up. At this time of the year, however, numbers hover round eight.

The market's growth - or lack of it - is an issue. He characterises the market's current position as stable.

"We are conscious that our market is not growing as fast as some others so we are looking at how we can be more flexible," he says. "One of the things we get criticised for is having too many rules but the only one, really, is the person selling the goods needs to have grown or produced them."

Taranaki's main disadvantage is a lack of fruit and vege producers. There are only two commercial growers. Sheldrake has been told that once there were 20-odd but changing distribution patterns, particularly of supermarkets, contributed to the demise of local producers.

Places like Manawatu, Wellington and Waikato have a pool of producers to call on as well as boutique stallholders, he says.

Sunday may not be the ideal day but Saturday isn't a goer either. The long-running car boot sale, held in the Mill carpark on Saturday mornings, attracts some of the same people. Weekdays don't suit as many market stallholders have other jobs.

There are other issues. The stallholders entirely fund the operation. A TSB Community Trust grant paid for the initial lot of canopies but ongoing maintenance is required, and some new canopies have been bought.

Being at the farmers market, Sunday after Sunday is very hard, says Sheldrake, whose day job is as a project manager and consultant. Stallholders willing to hang in there, make a go of it and understand it's not a get-rich-quick option are likely to benefit the most.

Building an atmosphere - a place where people stay and chat, hear music and slowly meander - is what the trust strives for. It's easier in warmer weather when cafes on Currie St entice people to sit around and build a sense of conviviality.

Sheldrake says that these days many out-of-towners expect a city the size of New Plymouth to have a farmers market. During Womad, visitors want to know where the market is, he explains.

While stallholders aren't likely to retire early on market profits, there are upsides. "It's really nice; it's almost a social event. We have made a lot of friends amongst stallholder customers.

"The critical thing is a critical mass . . . Once we get a critical mass, other people [stallholders and customers] will come forward."

Taranaki Daily News