Seeing the vines of the Willunga Farmers Market

On The Record contributor Lara Pacillo takes a farm to table journey through the town of local trade. (Image source: Lara Pacillo)

By Lara Pacillo | @LaraPacillo

Leathery hands juggle rainbow nightshades in the glistening daylight. Picked from its tree barely a day earlier, I reach forward and grasp hold of an apple-shaped pear, bridging the gap between farmer and customer.

What is it about the Willunga Farmers Market that gets sleepy teens up and about at 8 am, fussy children skipping for brussels sprouts, and busy parents taking a leisurely stroll?

Dreadlocked couples, slobbery canines, wrinkly ladies and I gather on an early Saturday morning searching for something – for me, it’s to discover what brings these characters here; for them, it’s to show me.

The countryside of McLaren Vale (Image source: Lara Pacillo)

A cruisy 45-minute drive is all it takes to travel my sister and I from the concrete jungle of Adelaide to the open stretches of the McLaren Vale countryside. Oceans of greenery lush with aisles of vines are in every direction.

The season of growth is upon us, yet the crop is naked of produce. We later find out this is because harvest day is Thursday and Friday; backtrack three days earlier and this very same field was heavy, weighted by plump fruit and veg ready to move just down the road to trade.

It’s market day today and I couldn’t have picked a better weekend for it. The air is tranquil and crisp like a breath of calmness, and the cloudless blue above tells me I won’t be wearing my jacket for long.

The sun sparkles on stationary cars that line the streets of the small town. Socially distanced trails of empty rattan baskets and worn fabric trolleys lead me to the entrance of the Willunga Farmers Market.

While the farmers market is held every Saturday from 8 am until noon, and has been for the last 18 years, it’s not the only regular trading event that this town is famous for.

On the second Saturday of each month, two other players join the game: the Willunga Quarry Market, which retails ranges of handcrafts, yummy food, plants and gifts; and the Willunga Artisans and Handmade Market, which showcases exactly what its name suggests. The main characteristic that the trio share is that everything they trade is made, grown or sourced locally.

A bubbly COVID Marshal – complete with a hi-vis and sanitiser in hand – greets each wonderer upon entering. Gazebos bricked neatly side by side frame the Town Square. They gently hug the inviting choir of “good morning” and “how’s your week been” and “let’s meet for coffee later”.

Each stall houses niche specialty products, manned by the very people who produced them. I stroll through the gallery of goods: blue gum, orange blossom and mangrove honey; smelly sharp cheeses, creamy, crumbly and firm; lavender brownies; garlic almonds; apple and dill kraut; fig terrine; duck terrine; and terrine of pork and walnut.

What on Earth is terrine? I think to myself, taking a sip of my locally roasted coffee. The varieties and combinations overwhelm me. I’ve never heard of half of these in my life and I want the try them all.

I notice everyone is on a first name basis at the market, which feeds its relaxed nature. I meet with Jenni who is the Willunga Farmers Market General Manager and has been for over three years.

Jenny loves berry season, bumping into old friends, and growing vegies with her son as part of the Magic Harvest program. She tells me the Town Square where I sit used to be where all the stalls were setup: carrots, condiments and all.

Since COVID-19 restrictions came into place, the market is now spread across two sites with the fresh fruit and veg located across Main Road at the Willunga Recreation Park.

“What you’re seeing today looks very different from six months ago,” Jenni explains to me over the rattly guitar of the jolly top hatted busker soundtracking our morning.

She says that while it’s a part of the market atmosphere for it to be so crowded, it’s perfect now.

“It’s got that hustle and bustle without being cramped,” she says. She tells me how the market became even more so a place of solace during lockdown and has continued to be so after.

“Even during this time, we’ve been having more people coming to the market, choosing and wanting to support local, and feeling safer by shopping in the fresh air.”

The characters of the Willunga Farmers Market (Image source: Lara Pacillo)

The market was first held in 2002 with 18 stalls as a space for small producers and farmers to sell their produce direct to customers. Now being home to over 80 producers, South Australia’s first farmers market is constantly moulding into an institution of sustainable and economic development through community allegiance.

This is particularly evident through its membership model. For $45 for the first year and $40 annually to renew, members are treated to 10 per cent off at all stalls, and discount at a selection of shops on High Street and partnering wineries.

Not only does this offer show the market’s appreciation for regular shoppers, but its funds also help support the $15,000 annual farming scholarship that’s granted to an aspiring farmer.

Jenni points over to the new community stall that has joined the collection of gazebos. Each week, a different local club takes over the stall to educate the community about what they do. This week, it’s the local surf lifesaving club.

“I think that’s something that we’re really blessed in,” Jenni says.

“People are excited to share their enjoyment of simply living together.

“We find that visitors love that as well. They love going to a place and immersing themselves in not just the food and the wine, but the culture of the community and what goes on.”

As I continue my quest through the market, I begin to notice a common quality amongst the people here. It’s not just the connection to each other that they value, but the connection to the land and other creatures that roam it.

Kat from Falkai Farm, with a contagious smile and bright blue eyes, proudly offers pasture raised eggs from uncaged, unmedicated hens.

“We don’t need to feed them medication or anything. They just stay healthy by living as chickens actually do,” she tells me.

I make my way towards the Willunga Recreation Park to see what fresh seasonal produce is on offer, but particularly to buy a sweet punnet of strawberries that Jenni recommended.

Branches clothed in green gum leaves web high above me as I stroll the bark path. The town’s name derives from the aboriginal word “willangga” meaning “the locality of green trees”, and rightly so.

At the park, on the gravel opening to the Willunga Oval, the scene is a fresh fruit and veg version of the Town Square. I see buckets of buttery pears, crispy apples and crunchy cauliflower, alongside bouquets of all greens waiting to do the body wonders.

John from Organic Veg and Bush Gardens at his stall (Image source: Lara Pacillo)

John from Organic Veg and Bush Gardens grows vegies and native plants in his home garden. His rainbow-striped beanie, matching knit jumper and “GM-free Zone” banners draw me to his stall. John only uses compost and water to grow his produce.

“Some garden sprays are still toxic, even though they are organic,” he tells me through his wiry white beard.

“With sprays, you get rid of the bad bugs, but you’re also getting rid of the predators that would’ve controlled them.

“You’ve got lots of ladybirds and blue wrens and things that hop through the garden, controlling the bugs naturally.”

I notice just like in the Town Square site of stalls, there’s so many names that are foreign to me. I’ve had no idea what I’ve been missing.

Brenda from Alnda Farms, with a soft face and warm glow, grows a wide variety of produce on their 18-acre farm on the flood plains of Gawler River. She tells me that Alnda Farms is really known for their tomatoes above everything else.

“We grow an enormous range: 25 odd varieties at any given time, all colours and shapes,” she says.

Just like rainbow jumper John, Alnda Farms doesn’t use selective herbicides or harsh chemicals; and they plant, weed, and harvest by hand.

Brenda explains to me how they choose not to sell to supermarkets. This is partly because they get bug damage from not using chemicals and so their produce would be rejected.

 Supermarkets have strict size and visual produce specifications, which is restricting to the glorious selections and possibilities there are to try.

“The varieties that you grow for them in our opinion are just not as nice a variety as what we like to eat, and we just don’t want to grow stuff that we’re not interested in,” Brenda puts it simply.

Brenda’s bold care for ecology and open-minded attitude makes me think back to my conversation with Jenni.

We discussed how the benefits of trading locally extend to even how it has a lower environmental impact during food transportation. Minimising food miles means minimising the carbon dioxide emissions of food freight.

I contrast rainbow jumper John selling veg to Russell’s Pizza on High Street of Willunga, to a supermarket chain trekking out-of-season produce across the country to its stores. The difference in food mileage is incomparable.

The market values educating a sustainable culture and isn’t shy about it either. At least once a month, the market holds special events such as cooking demonstrations, workshops on waste and recycling, and even classes on how to make beeswax wraps. Limiting its negative environmental impact is evidently paramount.

On my way to discover more of the Willunga town itself, I pass a collection of bright chairs and multi-coloured bunting: the Green Light Organic Market.

It boasts all things organic, sustainable, recycled, recyclable and ethically produced, from cleaning products to skincare. It’s the fourth market I’ve come across within the three hours I’ve been here and each one captivates me even more.

The town itself is an extension of the homely market ambience. While I was expecting old and simple essential stores, I could not have misjudged this more.

Quirky, youthful, antique stores line High Street. I flick through vinyls at Whatever at Willunga, browse the wine varieties at Hither & Yon, and read fun food puns at Kookery. It’s easy to get lost in the charm of this market town, and I’ve done just that.

Hither & Yon cellar door (Image source: Lara Pacillo)

There’s a craving for diversity and culture for care that’s thick in the air of Willunga and its farmers market.

A customer is not just the next stranger in line: it’s an old friend who’s shown support for years. The stallholders are not just people to process a transaction: they are hardworking farmers, excited to share their lifetime of knowledge about produce they dedicate their lives to.

Food is treated with such respect from the moment its seeds are soaking in the rich soil of the Fleurieu Peninsula, to the moment it’s served at a restaurant in the very same region.

 From farm to table and from paddock to plate, the middleman is non-existent in this town of togetherness. Instead, it’s filled with an appreciation for authenticity.

My journey to the market was not one of escape which travel is often associated with: it was a journey of unity. Dreadlocked couples, slobbery canines and wrinkly ladies gathered on an early Saturday morning to find connectedness within each other, and I came to discover that I did too.


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