The genteel bustle and spirit of camaraderie at a popular Birmingham farmers’ market has been torn apart – by a war over tomatoes.
Amid the Kings Norton market stalls selling free range eggs, sticky puddings and ostrich burgers, hostilities have broken out between two rival fruit and veg producers.
Mike Wilkes saw red when Roger Styan started selling fruits from a third producer, in apparent contravention of the community market’s rules.
Mr Styan said he is merely improving consumer choice and maintains his selection of fragrant cocktail vine tomatoes and large plums have the “wow” factor.
Now battlelines have been drawn at a market that can trace its origins back to 1616, the year of Shakespeare’s death.
According to the market’s rules, all produce must be “grown, reared, pickled, baked, smoked or processed by the stallholder.”
The rules further state that “primary produce” must be “grown or reared on the producer’s land.”
Mr Wilkes, a fifth generation farmer, attends 18 markets a month with his brother Chris and said the Kings Norton operators are undermining the credibility of the monthly event by allowing Evesham-based Styan to sell tomatoes grown by a neighbouring Worcestershire grower.
Mr Wilkes, aged 54, said: “There is someone who makes no secret of the fact they sell other people’s products because they get away with it.
“I am not having a go at the particular producer. It is the operators who are allowing this.
“We have explained to the market operator that they are breaking their own rules and they don’t want to know. The ethos we have had for ten years is being trampled on.”
Mr Wilkes, who is based at Stone, near Kidderminister, said a long-standing tomato producer had pulled out of the Kings Norton market because of the “unfair competition.”
The producer says he grows everything he sells on his stall and relies on the income he earns at farmers’ markets. However, he fears consumers, who have already become sceptical about the sourcing of produce at some markets will take their custom elsewhere if they think the “sell-your-own” philosophy is being compromised.
Mr Wilkes added: “You are either going to have rules or not. You become just a normal market. The minute we are not special, we are finished.”
Mr Styan, who has 35 acres of plums and damsons and 35 acres of mixed vegetables, said he attended 20 farmers markets – in Birmingham, the Thames Valley and Gloucestershire – and openly adopted a “producer co-operative” approach to sales.
He said both market operators and customers were well aware Styan shared its stall with specialist tomatoes from Robert Hale’s Longdon Hill Nurseries, also based in Evesham.
Mr Styan said: “We get the produce direct from the farmer to go to the market. There is no secret about it.
“We can get really good produce from a specialist tomato producer. We wow the customers and bring customers into the market because of what we do.”
Mr Styan said small, niche producers found it very hard to make enough money to justify going to farmers’ markets. This was why there were so few cheese stalls. He called for the rules to be relaxed so there could, for example, be a regional cheese stall. Customers would benefit in the long run by getting better variety.
Asked what he would do if Kings Norton insisted he stop selling Robert Hale’s tomatoes, Mr Styan said: “I would pull out of Kings Norton and tell my customers who has been throwing stones and why.”
Markets needed to work as cooperatives between producers and had to be imaginative if they were to survive and prosper, added Mr Styan.
A spokesman for Kings Norton farmers’ market said he was aware of Mr Wilkes’ complaint and the matter was being investigated.