I have previously written about farmers' markets and I assumed that by cutting out the middleman, this could be nothing more than beneficial for both parties. The comments on that post surprised me somewhat to learn that farmers actually struggle to turn a profit at a farmers' market and many prefer to sell to the wholesale fruit & vegie market as has been traditional, and perhaps supplement that with farmgate sales. Like many Western suburbanites, I have driven past the wholesale fruit & vegie market in Footscray Road innumerable times and wondered what went on inside. It was so exciting then when Deb invited me on one of their regular tours - finally I could see the "missing link" in the chain that connected farmers with fruit & veg shops.
So at 6am we donned fluoro yellow vests and boarded our little noddy bus for a 2-hour tour with our friendly and knowledgeable guide. The wholesale fruit & vegie market has been on this West Melbourne site since 1969. Previously it was located at the Vic Market which basically ran 24 hours a day at that time - all night for wholesale and almost all day for retail.
Under the long roof, the wholesalers line the outer edges of the market. These businessmen and women buy fruit and veg from various growers and then specialise in a certain range of produce, be it capsicums and stone fruit or sweet potatoes and ginger. Everything is sold by the box. There aren't any prices but apparently they are similar everywhere in the market. The wholesalers have snazzier premises and at the end of the day, put everything back inside, shut the rollerdoors and then turn on big cooling fans inside to refrigerate the produce until the next trading day. I learnt that La Manna bananas are actually a group of banana growers, not just an enormous plantation, who have banded together to become their own kind of cooperative.
In the centre of the market are the small-scale producers. They are all within 2 hours of Melbourne, from Bacchus Marsh, Werribee, Cranbourne and other places. They come in every day and pack up everything at the end of that day to take it back to their farm. A group of us banded together and bought a huge bunch of Australian garlic from this lovely man, which we then split up between us. The wholesale fruit & vegie market supplies fruit & veg shops, retail market stalls and independent supermarkets. The big supermarkets generally have contracts with farms direct and buy their entire crop.
It's like a little city inside the market with about five separate, independent cafes. There are forklifts everywhere travelling at buttock-clenching speeds, dodging pedestrians, weaving in and out of towering stacks of produce. There are also funny little sputtering, diesel-belching motorbikes with pallets attached that reminded me of the tuk-tuks in India.
I highly recommend the tour - this is just a very basic overview. We had lots of great chats to both wholesalers and small-scale producers. The history of Melbourne, in particular that of its immigrants, is written all over this market. There are some family businesses here that are in their sixth generation! The tour gave me a much better appreciation of the links between grocer or market, farmer and consumer. And don't worry, you get a coffee included to cope with the 6 am start!
Melbourne Wholesale Fruit & Vegie Market
Footscray Road, West Melbourne (map)
Book a tour here