Strife at Ballina Farmers Market
MIKE BURLESS is not a happy man.
The potatoes and carrots farmer and manager of the Sunday farmers' market in Ballina learned last week that his application to renew the licence for three years was knocked back by Ballina councillors, despite a staff recommendation in favour.
Ballina Shire councillors voted to call for expressions of interest in managing the market, a move that has upset Mr Burless and his co-manager Tom Bridge, who have overseen growth in its size, range and turnover.
The council staff report said the pair had "achieved the key outcomes envisaged under the licence agreement”.
The managers believe they have met all the requirements for a viable and professionally run enterprise and are aggrieved that the time, effort and money they have invested in making it a success could all be for nothing.
The two men won the tender for the licence to operate the Missingham Farmers' Market at Missingham Bridge every Sunday in April last year.
During the Prawn Festival, the site became unavailable so the market moved to Commemoration Park.
The park seems agreeable to nearly everyone: the report staff presented to councillors included two petitions, one with 80 signatures from customers declaring satisfaction with the site.
The other petition came from nearly all the market's 15 stallholders declaring, among other things, full support for management.
So the managers, expecting to be granted a three-year renewal, were dismayed when councillors put it to tender.
Other than the mayor, David Wright, no councillors had come to the market or consulted in any meaningful way, Mr Burless said.
"Some of them weren't up to speed. They saw it as a minor issue.”
ALSO unhappy are Arthur and Joanne Smith, who grow tomatoes, bananas and passionfruit on their Tintenbar property, and are 26-year Ballina market veterans.
The managers sent a letter to the Smiths on January 1 telling them they were no longer welcome to trade at the market. They cited a "resentful and derisory attitude” towards the managers, an ongoing dissatisfaction and a pursuit of their own interests above those of the market.
"(The Smiths) were very anti the move from the Spit to Commemoration Park. There was nothing they were happy about and they were very reluctant to follow directives - among other things about parking where they were asked not to,” Mr Burless said.
"It made for an awkward, uncomfortable atmosphere in an otherwise buoyant, vibrant, booming market.
"It was destructive to the customer base, and some long-term stallholders asked us to stop it happening.”
The Smiths approached Cr Sharon Cadwallader, who took up their case.
They have also put the matter in the hands of a solicitor, who says the grounds for the dismissal are subjective, generalised and unclear.
The Smiths were granted a licence to hold a single operator market at the Missingham Bridge site on Saturdays, but Ms Smith says they are selling only about a quarter of what they were before.
"We've had to throw away cartons of bananas and have reduced our tomato picking hugely,” she said. "It has been pretty devastating.”
They are keen to rejoin the market, but with a new manager.
"We couldn't go back to the market with Mike as the manager,” Ms Smith said.
The market was "fine before, when the council was running it”, she said.
"There were about five stalls; it ran smoothly. It was great.”
MIKE Burless says he wants the market to grow - for the good of the local community and for the 15 or so farmers who are now regular stallholders.
He would like to see that figure double.
"At present between 500-600 shoppers attend every Sunday. With 35 stalls, it would be a very solid market and guarantee a good income for everyone.
"The big question is why council went down that route.”
He says Cr Cadwallader became "a campaign manager for the Smiths” and engineered the EOI move.
For her part, Cr Cadwallader says "big is not always better”.
"The 12-month licence was only a trial,” she said. "The traditional stallholders provided a wonderful service but they have been sidelined and a lot of farmers introduced from outside Ballina Shire.
"We need a more consultative process, not such autocratic management.”
Mr Burless is pessimistic: "There will be nothing good for anyone from this scenario. Not for Cr Cadwallader, not for the managers, not for our stallholders or the community; not for investment in Ballina, not for the council and also, tragically and ironically, not for the Smiths.”