15 years of farmers market proves the way to Canberra's heart is food

When the Capital Region Farmers Market began in March 2004 the 850 people who turned up wandered around a shed that still had dirt floors and housed 18 stalls.

Today, after 15 years of providing for the Canberra community, the markets can have anywhere between 100 and 125 stallholders and 6000 visitors in winter, jumping to 8000 around Christmas.

Ed Wensing has shopped at the Capital Region Farmers Market since it began in 2004. Ed bought a bunch of flowers for his wife on Saturday from Nicola Padovano, 16, from Janima Flowers. Photo: Karleen Minney

Ed Wensing has shopped at the Capital Region Farmers Market since it began in 2004. Ed bought a bunch of flowers for his wife on Saturday from Nicola Padovano, 16, from Janima Flowers. Photo: Karleen Minney

But in that time the markets have held one thing sacrosanct: it's all about Canberra and our region.

Market director John Kenworthy said the markets started as a way for Rotary to raise funds and at a time when supermarkets moved away from smaller producers.

While farmers markets are hugely popular today, this was not the case in 2004, Mr Kenworthy said.

But there was appetite in the capital for somewhere people could engage with local producers and get fresh fare as the market hit milestones slated for three years time in the first six months of opening.

"People know it's the real thing, not processed stuff from overseas," Mr Kenworthy said.

"And there's a sense of pride with local, real people."

For Ed Wensing, who has visited the markets since they opened 15 years ago, it's the fact he can interact with local producers that keeps him coming back.

"You build up a bit of a relationship with producers," Mr Wensing said.

"You can learn how the produce is grown and how to cook with it."

The Capital Region Farmers Market has been feeding Canberrans for 15 years. Photo: Supplied

The Capital Region Farmers Market has been feeding Canberrans for 15 years. Photo: Supplied

Mr Wensing's strawberry purveyor takes a keen interest in his PhD studies, something you wouldn't find anywhere else.

He also said the fruit and vegetables on offer were of a noticeably higher quality and fresher, meaning it lasts longer and represented better value for money.

"I try to avoid Coles and Woolies like the plague now," he said.

"They've gotten too big.

"I like that it supports the local economy and money goes back into producing food locally."

He added that while the markets have grown considerably and maintained diversity, fresh meat stalls in particular have dropped off from the scene.

Stallholders at the market are held to an incredibly rigorous standard, market director Mr Kenworthy said, primarily to ensure it is actual growers and producers that are selling their wares and not retailers.

This includes property inspections and even checking aerial photographs of what is grown. Over the years nine stallholders have been removed for not meeting the standards.

"We believe the authenticity of the market is most important, it's not just another retail outlet," Mr Kenworthy said.

The market now has stallholders from practically every continent, with exotic varieties of fruit and vegetables from every corner of the globe now grown in the region, and it has significantly increased its amount of ready to eat meals and cakes and pastries.

Mr Wensing said the growth of the market, and other farmers markets that have sprouted since, directly related to people's concerns about sustainability and the environmental impact of food.

While the Capital Region Farmers Market took a hit from light rail construction, Mr Kenworthy said, with dozens of road closures hindering customers, numbers were starting to pick up again.

He said the market had a plan in place to inject $1.2 million into Canberra and the region over the next three years through Rotary. Since its inception the not-for-profit markets have given $1.5 million back to the community through Rotary funded projects, including fully funding a community nurse specialising in Parkinson's disease.

On Saturday there were a number of stalls at the market highlighting some of the organisations and causes helped by Rotary with funding from the markets, including the John James Foundation and Barnardos.