Justine Paul is the founder of Suffolk Market Events, which recently featured on The Farmers’ Country Showdown, on BBC One. Here, she explains how stepping in to save Lavenham farmers’ market 15 years ago has led to running more than 100 markets a year across the county – and beyond
What led you to running Suffolk Market Events and what were you and your husband doing before?
In 2008 I stepped in to save something I cared about. The doors of Lavenham Farmers’ Market were about to close for the last time; a small handful of producers and an equally small number of customers were all that was left of this monthly market. I care about my food, and I care about where it comes from so the notion of having no market in one of Suffolk’s oldest market villages was something that didn’t sit comfortably with me, and I decided to do something about it. From there Suffolk Market Events developed and has evolved, organically, ever since. I was a trained nurse and looking for a new challenge after moving to Suffolk with my family in 2007 and my husband Alex had worked in the tourism and hospitality sector until he joined up with me full time in 2020.
How has your business evolved since saving Lavenham Farmers’ Market in 2008?
Fast forward 15 years and today, Lavenham farmers’ market has evolved into Suffolk Market Events. We now run over 100 markets a year which includes four thriving, multi award winning, farmers markets held monthly in Lavenham, Bury St Edmunds, Colchester and Sudbury, artisan markets in the heart of Ipswich, vegan markets, and craft markets plus a wonderful annual food festival – The Taste of Sudbury. Combined, these markets serve over 4,000 customers each month.
Our reputation now precedes us, and the business grows constantly but we never take our focus off our fundamental ethos, which is top quality, local food sold by the person who produced it, directly to the customer.
Where can people find your markets and how would you describe them?
Our regular customers follow the trail of our monthly farmers markets starting on the first Saturday of the month at Colchester in a brilliant venue on the piazza outside the Mercury Theatre with Jumbo the Water Tower looking down on us! The second Sunday on the month we’re on The Traverse on the heart of Bury St Edmunds – always a very popular market and then it is on to Sudbury on the fourth Friday of the market and a great range of traders running down Market Hill with the statue of Thomas Gainsborough bearing over us. Finally, it is Lavenham Farmers Market on the fourth Sunday of the month – a very special market for traders and customers alike.
You won an award last year – what makes your markets so special?
We are always looking for ways to enhance the experience for the customer by improving layout, adding extras like street food/hot drinks or perhaps some music but in essence we always make sure we have local artisan produce sold by the producer at every market – so real quality and the customers can chat with the producers to learn and discuss the product. The important of local food for local people is critical now and I believe more and more people understand and appreciate this – what is better than knowing the home of produce you have just bought when it arrives in your kitchen. The markets are always reliable and consistent – whatever the weather or conditions (including during lockdown) we are there with all the traders so visitors are assured of an excellent experience and range of shopping. Finally, and often most importantly, we create a wonderful place for the local community – we always see lots of local people shopping and socialising at the market – it is and always will be a place to meet and see friends, family etc and it is often a crucial link to the outside world for those living alone or in isolation. So, we provide an economic boast for local rural communities as well as a crucial social activity.
We’re in the middle of a cost-of-living crisis – do you think farmers’ markets can be a surprisingly economical way of shopping for food and drink?
As producers can sell directly to customers there is no middleman to pay so prices can stay low. Plus, customers can discuss prices and quantities directly with the producer so again be in control of what they are spending and avoid any wastage. All the customers know they are getting value for money when they are buying direct from a local producer – quality is assured.
Has being featured on The Farmers’ Country Showdown had a positive impact?
Yes, it’s been great fun, we have had lots of enquiries about our markets from new local traders trying to sell in their local communities which is great. The first farmers market in Lavenham in January since the programme was aired was wonderful and busy – lots of visitors from all parts of England including Kent, Sussex as well as quite a few from Norfolk!
You also run the Taste of Sudbury – can you say a bit more about that particular event?
The Taste of Sudbury, a fantastic annual event and hosted in the grounds of Melford Hall on Saturday 17th June. The festival will continue to be all about celebrating, promoting, and showcasing the very best producers, restaurants, and chefs that we are so lucky to have in this region.
There will be over 60 stalls will be filling the grounds selling a whole range of top quality produce including local beef and pork, freshly baked breads, cakes and pies, locally grown fruit including Suffolk strawberries and raspberries, locally distilled Suffolk gins, beautiful brownies and traybakes, Suffolk jams, marinades and conserves plus vegan pastries and much more.
The fabulous main kitchen theatre will be back with an amazing line up of some of our region’s very best chefs and artisan producers who will be on stage plus there will be butchery masterclasses and baking demos too. A number of quirky vans and horseboxes will be cooking up delicious street food and of course you’ll be able to sit and enjoy a pint of local craft ale or a glass of Suffolk Gin and Tonic too or perhaps a glass of fizz and local oysters from Mersa?!
As always, the festival will offer the family a great day out and dogs are very welcome. At only £5 entry for adults and free for kids it is great value as well.
Any plans for 2023 you can share?
Look out for our Suffolk Farmers Markets at The Cattle Sheds at Trinity Park, Ipswich – these events have grown and grown and this year they will be even bigger and better. Plus, a new event – Market in the Barn at Grange Barn, Coggeshall – we’re expecting over fifty local producers, street food plus a range of local crafts – again free entry.
Plus, we are always working with local authorities to help them revitalise and improve existing markets in towns and villages across East Anglia. We continue to support work which elevates local markets which in turn can help bring vitality and vibrancy to high streets – crucial at the moment.
Visit Suffolk Market Events. The next event is Colchester Farmers Market, on Saturday, February 4, 2023, from 9.30am to 2pm; followed by Bury St Edmunds Farmers Market on Saturday February 11 then Sudbury Farmers Market on Friday February 24.
Featured image of Justine Paul, by Sarah Brown