Supporting small producers: setting up a local food directory

Matt Dunwell
Wednesday, 1st October 1997

Imagine a practical project that ties together the issues of sustainable land management, health, transport, recycling, employment and the local economy. It attracts support from farmers, greenies, councillors, local press and Brussels. It falls within funding criteria for a host of organisations from the EU down to local authority, and can be driven at community level encouraging people out of supermarkets and into each others back gardens... Are you salivating yet? Welcome to the Forest Food Directory, writes Matt Dunwell

The Forest Food Directory is a new initiative to encourage and celebrate the production of food within the Forest of Dean. It will list producers who are growing or processing local food or drink, and independent retailers who sell local food. As the policy makers try to come to terms with the problems of reducing packaging, cutting freight traffic, and sustainability (whatever that is), initiatives such as the Forest Food Directory are starting to create the trading structures that will deliver good quality local food at affordable prices, showing that there are positive alternatives to supermarket shopping.

The idea for the Directory grew out of Gloucestershire's Agenda 21 group. We talked initially of listing producers that we knew within Gloucestershire who were producing local food. There were not enough organic growers to give the Directory a useful amount of entries, and it was felt that the issue of local food should take priority over whether it was organic or not. But when we started to look at Gloucestershire as a whole, it became apparent that the area was too large.

There was a danger that we would actually be encouraging people to travel further to buy their food, also it was easier to engender an identity for a directory if we worked at district council level rather than county level (this will differ for other areas). Finally, the Forest of Dean has a surprising number of independent smallholders and other small producers still struggling on and so it is a good place for a local food directory.

The pilot, in November 1997, will only have about 30 - 40 listings, but once people understand the concept, I suspect we will have many more listings for the first full edition in 1998. A pilot will also give us a chance to fill the Directory with producers with a good welfare and environmental record. This will hopefully attract like minded producers and consumers to the first edition. The pages of listings will be interspersed with articles about food miles, packaging, welfare, Local Exchange Trading Systems and Women's Institute markets, and genetic engineering. This should create an informed group of customers with reused carrier bags in their hands and pertinent questions in their heads.

Why Do You Need A Local Food Directory?

These are well rehearsed arguments. By stimulating local trading, the Directory will reduce the amount of food bought into the region reducing traffic and 'food miles'. Customers who buy their food direct from the producer invariably benefit from learning more about how their food is grown and how to cook it. Vegetables bought direct from the holding tend to be fresher and contain higher levels of vitamins. Producers also benefit from better margins than selling to the wholesale market, and 'market intelligence' from close links with the consumer. A strong local market ensures a stable marketing base on which to build up the business, which is often crucial to the success of small producers. A proliferation of small producers maintains a diverse landscape, including different 'habitats', within an economic framework.

The Directory will also act as a catalyst to encourage trade between producers, and identify a group of small farmers and growers who are often isolated in their work. A shared processing facility in Cinderford for making apple juice and preserves is under discussion making it possible for small producers to tackle the red tape (in this case yards of stainless steel work surfaces) that often disadvantages them against larger concerns.

The employment potential of local food is often overlooked. Growers have been driven from the land by mechanisation, multiple retailers who favour bulk production, the collapse of local markets and cheap imports. Selling food direct to the consumer, through a box scheme or farmer's market creates a customer loyalty that is the envy of multiple retailers. For example, throughout the BSE debacle our beef trade stayed rock solid as the market collapsed around us, because we were selling direct to the public.

It is this robust nature of local food links that growers are interested in. They know how fickle the food industry is, and they know that stability is as important as profit margins. Local food creates a stronger economy and the producers that have forged links with their customers will be at an advantage in the event of further food scares.

Who Gets In The Directory?

The only criteria we are using to appear as a listing in the Directory is that producers commit themselves to inspection from consumers. Most producers enjoy this relationship anyway, and the holdings that are not receptive to visits are likely to be out of step with the ethos of the Directory. These visits build understanding and lead to informal social gatherings focusing on fresh food, cooking and the environment. Links between city and country are reinforced and the small producer, who is often working in isolation, receives much needed encouragement, and negative as well as positive feedback. The emphasis is therefore on a well informed public who then apply pressure on producers to keep up to the mark. It should be self policing.

Hopelessly naive? Well probably, but just think for a moment if it did work. We are all interested in encouraging better standards of food production. It would take two or three seasons for producers to respond to demand, a very short period of time. The organic movement has well thought-out standards, and has been largely responsible for the growth in consumer demand for better food. However, it is having to cope with enormous growth pains in the UK.

Acreage under organic management in the UK is around 0.05% of agricultural land. In Europe, the market has developed much faster due to far sighted government support. Germany and Austria have around 10 - 20% of their land under organic management. The UK will need a massive push to get to this sort of level. The last government disabled the organic movement, and their legacy is a flood of imported organic food from Europe, whose producers are the fastest growing sector in the business. The Labour Government has yet to show its hand, and every season that passes without a fairer system of grants, sets us back further. We now have the general public crying out for organic food, regulations from Brussels on organic certification showering down, and no government money to compete against the arable aid payments that prevent arable farmers from converting; it is a form of gridlock.

In the meantime, I think it is more important to support small-scale local production, and get the local economy back in place, rather than get stuck in the bottleneck that will affect organic production for the next ten years. Somebody needs to speak for the free range egg producer by the side of the road, the local honey producer, and allotment holders that want to sell surplus. These small producers are not likely to apply for the organic symbol, but they need a voice. It is these growers that will be centre stage in the Forest Food Directory.

Officialdom

"They will close me down!" is the cry we were expecting from producers when invited to be in the Directory. In fact, very few producers have declined to come forward for that reason. The Environmental Health Officer (EHO) can make or break a project like this. The wrong sort of noises can send producers scuttling for cover. It is wise to keep the EHO well informed as the project develops, and explain exactly what is meant by a box system, or farmers market, or whatever.

We have found the EHO in the Forest of Dean very helpful. By and large, big producers (cheese makers, dairies, bakeries etc.) will have EHO clearance already, and small producers such as vegetable growers, honey producers, and free range egg producers are not really prime targets for the EHOs as their food stuff is relatively safe. When it gets to meat, and processed products such as pickles and preserves, they get a bit more interested. We have found the only way to deal with this is to say that we are assuming the listings within the Directory have EHO clearance, and that if producers want to stay out of the Directory, then it is their choice. In practice, I think the EHOs have an accurate picture of what is happening on their patch, they can either chose to ignore it or not, and a directory of local producers will not change that very much. We have a strict policy of only promoting people who have given explicit permission for us to do so. This is in compliance of the Data Protection Act, and can be navigated by simply asking producers to tick a box in a questionnaire saying they are happy to go in the Directory.

In the work that I do at Ragmans Lane Farm - growing food, teaching permaculture, and showing a wide selection of people around - I am struck by the endless enthusiasm people have for good food. Unopened lunch boxes containing white bread and spam sit sweating as kids tuck into a plate of food straight from the garden, their parents watching with wide eyes.

Reinhart von Zschock (of Ceramic Stove fame) tells me of children bursting into tears as they taste bread straight from the bread oven. This is the way back to good healthy food. It should be enjoyable, and we have made a point of including good beer, cider, perry and even ice cream in the Forest Food Directory. It is not about eating parsnips for five months of the year, it is about recognising the shift in attitudes away from pre-packaged food towards a range of initiatives such as veggie box systems, farmers' markets, community supported agriculture and local food directories. As I write it is a week since the Radio 4 broadcast on the Bath farmers market.

Deborah Morris, who works for Bath City Council, has had four pages of telephone enquiries from other local authorities throughout the country who want to run similar events. Place after place, from Shropshire to Camden, from Newcastle to Exeter, have seen the potential for supporting local markets. These are the first small steps towards the beginnings of an emergent local economy based around food. It is not a 'Trash the Trolley' campaign against the supermarkets, but something far more worrying to the multiples; a positive and vibrant movement with wide support that is affordable, healthy, and above all, fun.

Matt Dunwell is looking for information on similar initiatives in the UK to get some feedback. He can be contacted at: Ragman's Lane Farm, Lower Lydbrook, Gloucestershire GL17 9PA. Thanks are due to Kate de Selincourt, from whom I have borrowed heavily for this article, and to Helena Norberg-Hodge who encouraged the Soil Association to support local food links.

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