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A woman on a mission

PUBLISHED: 11:41 13 October 2015 | UPDATED: 11:41 13 October 2015

Profile of Justine Paul, who runs Lavenham Farmers Market for Suffolk Magazine.

Profile of Justine Paul, who runs Lavenham Farmers Market for Suffolk Magazine.

Linda Duffin meets the EADT Suffolk Food and Drink Awards 2015 Food Hero, Justine Paul

Profile of Justine Paul, who runs Lavenham Farmers Market for Suffolk Magazine. Left to right, Margaret Willemsen and Justine Paul.Profile of Justine Paul, who runs Lavenham Farmers Market for Suffolk Magazine. Left to right, Margaret Willemsen and Justine Paul.

“I grew up in a house where food was important,” says Justine Paul. “I’ve got lots of memories of my grandmother’s kitchen and my mother had a huge veg patch. And I remember selling flowers over the garden wall when I was five and longing for a shop.”

So it is perhaps no surprise that Justine eventually found herself running and revitalising farmers’ markets, although it was the last thing on her mind when she moved to Suffolk with her husband Alex and two young children.

“We both love food and love cooking, and one of the things that excited us about moving to Lavenham was that it had a farmers’ market.” But their first visit in 2008 turned out to be a big disappointment. “We’d assumed it would be thriving and full of local produce. It had about half a dozen stalls and very few customers and producers standing behind the stalls desperately hoping someone would come and buy something from them. It just had no life left in it.

“I chatted to somebody on the community council and they said ‘it’s going to close, actually, because we’re not covering our costs and numbers have really dwindled.’ And I think that’s when I thought ‘that’s not actually going to happen!’ And so I said I’d try and do something with it.”

Justine trained as a nurse and had no experience in running her own business, but threw herself into the project. “I got on the phone, I got on the internet, I taught myself how to use Twitter and I sought out local producers. Quite a few of them said ‘no, Lavenham farmers’ market is rubbish’ and I begged them to just give it a try. I went to markets, I introduced myself to people, I put posters on trees, I got in the car and drove round, flier-dropped, literally just went on a bit of a mission.” That was in July 2008.

Helped by the community council, she re-opened the market in September that year and it went from strength to strength. Four years later it won an award for the best food market in Suffolk at the EADT Food and Drink Awards. Since then Justine’s Suffolk Market Events has also taken over Sudbury and Nayland farmers’ markets, both of which were in terminal decline.

“I think people care about the provenance of their food more and more and they realise when they come to my farmers’ markets, the person selling the food has produced that food. I also think the markets are a real community hub. We have cafés at the markets and customers will do their shopping, sit and have a cup of tea, have breakfast and stay for two hours and chat.”

She has turned three moribund farmers’ markets into going concerns and takes great pleasure in seeing the benefits to the producers. “They come face to face with their customers and build up a really good rapport and those customers come back every single month. Also they’re a real springboard for small-scale producers. Quite a few have gone onto really quite large-scale production. And that for me is fantastic, that’s the whole point of what I do.”

Earlier this year Lavenham won the award for the best market in Suffolk in the BBC Food and Farming Awards. Justine says: “I thought then it can’t get much better than this, I was really proud and really chuffed.” So when she a personal award - that of Food and Drink Hero - at this year’s EADT Food and Drink Awards she was bowled over.

“I get quite emotional and teary when I think about it. I haven’t had any training, I haven’t gone to university and learned marketing, I haven’t got qualifications in it, it’s just a result of loving something, having a fire in your belly for something, believing in it, working really hard at it, never giving up on it. Fundamentally I’m a mum of two kids, I’m a wife, I’ve got two mad dogs, you have to fit everything in.

“I had so many nominations, it was a huge pat on the back. It’s so easy to sit at your kitchen table tapping away at your computer and although I love it there are times when you think ‘is anyone really listening?’ To be handed an award like that proves people really are taking note and they think what you’re doing is good. And that was lovely. I felt really supported and also I thought ‘you know, Jus, you’ve done this on your own’. And that’s quite a big achievement really.”

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