Last week I attended the Welsh Real Food and Farmers Conference at LLysfasi, an event I also attended last year. This year though was very different for me as I had been invited to speak on a panel about local food.
This session was set up and co-ordinated by the Better Food Traders network, of which we have been a member for nearly a year now and who have proved very helpful so far.. On the panel with me was Seb Mayfield from OOOOBY (also Hampshire Veg Box, Alicia Miller from the Sustainable Food Trust (also runs Troed y Rhiw Organics) and Abi Marriott a project co-ordinator for PLANED’s Community Food Hub Distribution Initiative.
To give the delegates as much information as I could I prepared some answers to the questions that were to be asked. During the session I didn’t share all of these points as the discussion was going elsewhere or there wasn’t time, but given I’ve done the work I thought I’d share it here.
Chris Kameen from The Vale Grocer in Denbigh, here in North Wales. My background is I studied engineering at University, worked in Engineering and then we lived in Sydney Australia for 10 years where I worked in IT project management and then had my own sailing school for 4 years.
Upon returning I wanted to have my own business as a primary producer – either engineering or growing food. I had no prior knowledge of growing food! An opportunity came along 5 years ago to take on an existing veg box business which we did and we have grown into a profitable veg box shop and this Saturday we are holding our first local ‘farmers market’ at our shop.
1) Why are local, independent food traders so badly needed – ie, what’s wrong with the current food system?
In Denbighshire we have 3 independent greengrocers including ourselves, open 2 mornings a week There used to be that many in Denbigh alone. We know that some small shops and butchers also sell veg but we also know that this is a problem for them due to stock management / wastage and low profit margins.
There is a generation growing up who think that vegetables come from a supermarket and are completely disconnected from the growing. There is the belief that you can have practically the same 7 meals every week of the year with no nod to seasonality and the thousands of different plants that we could eat in a year.
A completely centralised food system relying upon just a few key players is asking for trouble in terms of resilience. Any management consultant that does a threats analysis on the health and food availaibility of our nation would immediately identify the following:
- Reliance on energy, diesel – for farming and delivery, electricity for cold storage. Availability and price shocks would have devastating impacts on both cost and whether food is able to be supplied. A 6130M John Deere tractor has a fuel tank of 225 litres and uses on average 25 litres an hour. Our total fuel consumption for delivery of nearly 5000 boxes and using our 2 wheeled tractor for cultivation for 2022 was 820 litres or about 16.5 litres per week
- UPF – More than 50% of what we eat and nearly 80% of what children eat is ultra processed food designed to have long shelf life in supermarkets and to make the most profit for the companies that make them. We have been coached into thinking that they look and taste amazing. UPF has been identified as the leading cause of obesity and other diet-related disease. Walk around a supermarket and see how much is non-UPF. Walk around our shop and none of it is UPF. The obesity pandemic and resultant impact on the health care system is arguably the biggest challenge facing the globe and is inextricably linked to the use of fossil fuels and the resultant impact on climate change.
- Limited number of farms / agribusinesses able to supply the supermarkets – specialised farms growing mountains of the same crop year after year are susceptible to environmental changes through disease or extreme weather. The national response to bird flu due to the impact to poultry businesses, the allowing of a pesticide that kills bees because of a beetle problem with monocropped sugarbeet will eventually catch up with us. Common sense says that.
- Reliance on technology for ‘just in time’ food – malware or hackers, solar flares or just plain bad project management – remember when KFC ran out of chicken because of a technology problem with their transport company? Small independents have to use technology to be profitable and efficient… but in the event of it not working we could still get the food out of the ground and feed people. If it doesn’t exist in the first place then we can’t.
2) What makes each of your business models better than the centralised, resource-hungry supermarket system?
- Farmers get between 50 – 70% of the value of what we sell our produce for
- Customers get the freshest possible food – our salad and leaves (kale / chard) are often harvested the same day as they are sold
- There is no waste in the system – we order our veg from the farms a week earlier than we sell it – so we/they only harvest what is needed
3) What are the main challenges for your business?
The main challenges for us are as follows:
- A lack of local food producers growing without chemicals – the ones that are around tend to be ‘amateur part timers’ that want you to buy and sell their glut in the same week. We need to be able to plan. As a business we are speaking with growers now and detailing what we need and will take next year, together with rough pricing.
- Growing vegetables is not seen as aspirational or a career, and because we don’t use tractors or sprays we are not seen as ‘proper’ farmers.
- There is no-one doing it locally and efficiently that we can learn from – we are having to train ourselves. If Soil Association Organic farms can produce veg at a price that we can’t get anywhere near to then we must accept that the reason is that we are being inefficient at growing and harvesting, because we haven’t been shown how to do it properly. Agriculture colleges seem to be aimed at a scale that is based upon land ownership and tractor use to mass produce food – whereas we need food produced by masses of people.
- Access to good land. Good land for growing is swallowed up by the big land owning farms or developers encouraged by government subsidy or house building policy.
- Access to herbicide and pesticide free muck – animal waste is an amazing and in my opinion an essential ingredient for growing crops sustainably – getting hold of that muck that isn’t tainted with herbicides is increasingly hard.
- Food labelling in supermarkets – UPF needs to be called out with health warnings the same as cigarettes. The mega food corporations are beholden to shareholders including pension funds that demand maximum profit. It is in their interests to maintain the status quo and fund research that steers government policy away from pointing the finger at UPF.
- Barriers to shopping on the High Street. No free parking in towns so high street shops are not viable – we moved away from the high street.
4) What are the biggest opportunities in local food retail right now?
There is a glaring gap in the market – people want to eat and support local food, but also want the convenience of the supermarket.
We are always on the look-out for local produce grown without chemicals. If a farmer / land-owner want to grow for us we would love to hear from you.. But this needs some degree of planning to make sure we don’t all grow the same thing. Hint – we need cabbages, and cauliflowers ( about 100 a week) most of the year round!
Through technology and marketing we can sell what is grown. More local food producers in the same location is not more competition it is normalising, there is room for all of us
5) How can we support growth – policies, other measures? Is there more support in Wales for alternative food systems than in the rest of the UK?
All schools could have a kitchen garden with someone working to produce food for the school – paid through central funding – this could be used as a teaching tool and for after school care. There is so much opportunity that will lead to more growers, knowledge of where their food is coming from and better eating habits. The plots do not need to be very big.
Implement the government commissioned National Food Strategy that was published by Henry Dimbleby.