Learn from history

Fresh produce markets have an interesting history. Go back more than 150 years and you’ll find a person called the market master who worked for the local municipality and also sold farmers’ produce by auction.

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The farmers would be paid by the municipality. After a while, farmers (and buyers) began asking for more and better services. The market master could not keep up – nor was he motivated to, being a municipal employee – so farmers appointed an independent person that they could trust to look after their ‘market interests’.

In time, this person took over all the sales functions on behalf of the farmers and became a market agent. The market master then focused on managing the market facilities and being an auctioneer.

History lesson one

Municipal employees, no matter how well-intentioned, cannot replace market agents.At one time, South Africa must have had a market of some description in every city, town and dorp. But over the years, smaller markets began to close as farmers and buyers found that it made more sense to support markets in the bigger towns, for two related reasons: better transport and a better deal.

Roads improved, trucks became faster and more efficient, and trucks began to replace trains. In tandem with this, a concentration of buying power and a wider variety of produce meant that the bigger markets drew more and more customers away from the smaller markets. This trend has continued, with refrigerated transport moving produce freely and efficiently from the big markets to towns many hundreds of kilometres away.

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And it’s market agents who facilitate this, not least because they have no ties with any particular municipality.

History lesson two
It is impossible for markets to ‘buck the trends’.

Modern fresh produce marketing is very different from that of yesteryear, but some of the principles of marketing remain valid.

With one or two exceptions, our smaller markets have their backs to the wall; they are run by municipalities and are not meeting the needs of their clients.

I hate the idea of any market closing its doors but my sentiments will do nothing to change the march of history.