Čestlice is the name of a small village just outside the eastern city limits of Prague. But it is also the location of a giant out-of-town shopping and warehouse complex filled with large box-type supermarkets. Around me I see a Bauhaus, Kika, JYSK, an Elektro World, and a huge Makro store. There is also a large Aqua Centrum here – a swimming centre. It is just off the D1 motorway, which heads towards the city of Brno. But, surprisingly, this place is also home to a newly-opened farmers’ market.
I am trying to track it down again. The first time I was here, I was quite struck by – for one, the very fact that you’d find a farmers’ market in a place like this; and also the fact that I recognised many of the faces from Pražské tržiště in Holešovice, the Prague Market far closer to the centre of Prague. Some of the stallholders have set up shop here complaining that Pražské tržiště was a confusing mix of wholesale and hand-made goods, and thus not the best place to get a farmers’ market-type experience. So they have also set up shop here...
I ask a women passer-by if she knows where I can find the farmers’ market.
“No idea. But I’d like to know about a place like that...”
But then the woman remembers:
“Hold on, I do know! It is where the old Giga Sport used to be. Do you know where that was?”
To be honest, I don’t. Even though I’ve been here before, I am struggling to find the farmers’ market. But I have finally tracked it down. It’s in an unusual building that looks like a squashed caterpillar with its zigzagging roof. “Kvalitní a čerstvé” is written on the front – “quality and fresh”, as well as the fact that it is open from 9am-7pm. Nowhere does it actually say in big letters “Farmers’ Market” however. It is situated between an outlet store, a Volvo dealership, and an Albert hypermarket. Can something like this prosper here? Let’s find out...
Inside is a large single hall. It’s quite cosy, with wooden beams on the ceiling and a long row of stalls directly ahead of me. Walking down I see a stall selling freshly squeezed fruit juices of all kinds, and next to that is a stall selling pâtés and jams. And also fresh cheeses are being sold here. From what I understand, the idea here is that everything here is supposed to be properly hand-made, with no wholesale goods whatsoever.
A man at one stall has just offered me a pastry of some kind to taste.
“An Uzbek samsa!”
I recognise this gentleman from Pražské tržiště in Holešovice, and he also has a stall here.
“We have beef, lamb, spinach, vegetables, chicken, and also squash for vegetarians who don’t want meat.”
It is a very nice pastry that contains different fillings. I move on to a stall selling wines from southern France.
Could you tell me a little bit about your stall here and what you are selling?
“We are selling French wines from Languedoc near the sea. We have delicious red wines and also white ones from the small wineries.”
And you are from France yourself?
“No, I am Czech.”
So why are you here? This is a new farmers’ market. Not many people know about it. I would say that there aren’t a large number of customers here. Is this an experiment? What are you hoping for here?
“I am hoping many people come here! [laughs]”
Do you have enough customers to survive?
“I hope so.”
Are you not worried?
How long have you been here?
I’m now with another one of the stallholders here, whose name is Silvia...
She is another person whom I met in Pražské tržiště in Holešovice. She works at a stall there selling various baked products – cakes and bread and so on. The first time I met her I was struck by her honesty: she doesn’t hesitate to defend a product or tell you “no, no, this one is better!”. She is quite a remarkable lady. She is also a Czech roma...
“Not roma, but gypsy...” (cikán in Czech).
I asked Silvia if this market could be viewed as something of an experiment.
“I suppose that at the very start it was something of an experiment. It obviously began with someone having the idea of opening a farmers’ market here. And of course these are very popular now as many people are realising that quality and healthy food is good for you.”
I have seen you in Pražské tržiště, and that place is extremely busy, with many customers. Looking around here, half the stores in this row are empty. And there are also very few customers here. So why risk this?
“We are both here and there. But we wanted to move the whole thing forward. You see, there are actually still very few farmers’ markets around. And they are only outside, and thus seasonal. We wanted to have a year-round one here in Čestlice, because I think the potential customer base is very big.
“But I will talk bluntly: we still have a great deal of corruption here in the Czech Republic. And so many farmers that ended up in outside markets would like to move in here and sell in a place like this, because they would be inside and I think this space is very good. But they were basically threatened that if they came here to Čestlice to sell their goods, then they would not be allowed to also sell at outside markets.”
“Because farmers’ products are a big business. And for every stall spot in places such as Anděl, Barrandov, Pankrác and these kinds of seasonal markets – those are very lucrative spots, and so they command high rental prices. And so threats were experienced that if you go to Čestlice, then you won’t be allowed there.”
I’ve also heard you and other stallholders mentioning that in Pražské tržiště (not formally a farmers’ market), that the mix of wholesale and genuine hand-made products is not clearly discernible to customers. And that producers are not happy about that fact. Is that one of the reasons you have come here?
“This is an attempt to have the genuine, real thing on sale. And that is one reason why we have so few stallholders here. Because the customers that come here are wiser as to what is and what is not genuinely farmers’ and hand-made. So what we have left now is pretty much only those who make the products which they are selling.”
Do you believe that deception exists in farmers’ markets? That people sell items that aren’t really what they claim to be?
“Yes, you find that everywhere in farmers’ markets. I’m sure of that. But when some people offer wholesale, mass-produced items as something else, then that damages the entire image of the farmers’ market. The system is supposed to be controlled by those who run such markets and rent out the space. As far as I know, such checks are indeed made here. But in a place like Pražské tržiště no effort is made to check on this. Vegetables and other produce is bought in bulk from Poland and often is misrepresented as being local farmers’ produce.”
Are you happy with the management here? Do you believe they could do more to help you? And also I noticed that it is very difficult to see the place from outside – so what more would you like done?
“I think that some mistakes have been made which may be hard to fix now – I don’t know... We’ve been here for around three months, and those customers who came here at the very start are now becoming a little disappointed with the lack of choice here. They can’t come here just for bread and yogurt. As for rent, yes we did receive a discount, but I think that if the aim here was to lure in more farmers, then the deal should have been a more attractive one. So it is hard to view this as sustainable right now. Nobody is going to come and offer their handmade goods here if they don’t sell.”
I walk around again and see a stall selling genuine cider. There’s also a smoked meats counter. There is one entire row here of stalls that is relatively full. I see Bulgarian cosmetics. And I see handmade pasta. Dried herbs... But there are also a good number of empty stalls here as well.
Silvia is just explaining to me that twelve stallholders recently left because of a rent increase. Apparently there used to be two rows of stalls here. But now if I walk out into the rest of this large hall, then all the other rows of stalls are completely empty. Row upon row upon row of empty stalls.
I’m now with a young gentleman called Radek. Tell me about your stall. I can see wine, coffee and beer.
“Yes, we have a combined stall here and offer Czech wine, beer and also coffee.”
This place is supposed to be all about handmade production. So this, for example, Lorecký beer here – that comes from a micro-brewery, right?
“Yes, it is beer from Kutná Hora. And the coffee I sell comes from Brazil, Columbia and sometimes Ethiopia. And we roast the beans here in the Czech Republic. And every week we offer new coffee.”
Tell me about this place here in Čestlice. Is this an experiment? Because you are surrounded by big supermarkets. And here you have a farmers’ market. Can it survive?
“It is an experiment, and we are waiting to see what the future will bring.”
Can you tell me a little about the history of this market and how long it has been here?
“There used to be a big sports store here – Giga Sports.”
“Maybe two months.”
Only two months. There is a big hall here. And there are one, two, three, four, five empty rows of stalls in this place.
“Yes. There is room here for 140 market stalls.”
And there are a lot more stallholders here than customers. In fact, I am barely seeing any customers here at all. So it looks a little uncertain. Are you optimistic about this place?
“I am still optimistic. We have to wait and see.”
I am now with Silvia again and a colleague of hers at a stall that sells meat products, who had her take on the woes being encountered by this market:
“This place is not clearly marked. It is very difficult to find. Unless you are really paying attention and make an effort to see it, then you’ll have a tough job even finding this place. There are even many people who live in the area who have no idea we exist – despite the fact that we have been here since November. But these at least are glad we are here.”
“I know it here because one of my friends had a stall here selling Swiss cheeses. That’s how I learned about it and why I came to visit this place for the first time. I think that they have great products here. Excellent apples and all kinds of fresh produce. I have been coming here since that time, but I am sad that there aren’t as many customers here as I feel the stallholders deserve.”
And what do you think is the reason for that?
“I think the problem is a lack of adequate marketing and advertising. For the amount that the stallholders pay here for rent I don’t think they are getting the best promotional services. Another reason could be the location, because it is a little out of the way, and not everyone is willing to come all the way here to do such shopping.”
I am standing back outside again. And two of the stallholders that work here are having a passionate discussion about what could save this place: What is being done? What isn’t being done? And so the overall atmosphere is actually a bit downbeat. There does seem to be resignation creeping in that this experiment is failing. That there isn’t enough PR being done; and yet these people are clearly still passionate about the fact that they offer the real thing in terms of quality, and lovingly made at that.
Čestlice farmers’ market – if it will still be here one or two months from now is difficult to say. But it has been a pleasure to come here...
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