At the beginning of the coronavirus lockdown, supermarket shelves were emptying out faster than we wanted them to, and many of us turned our attention to our smaller producers and retailers. The demand on these smaller sources suddenly rocketed. Amongst them is a diverse network of small local food producers. Apart from their food being tasty, fresh, nutritious, generally more seasonal and often a welcome addition to the standard produce supplied by our larger suppliers, it suddenly looks attractive to support these smaller operators.
Many small producers normally earn much of their income from running or selling to shops, cafes, holiday accommodation and similar tourist destinations. Now the hospitality sector has suddenly been shut down, for them this therefore presents a big welcome shift towards a whole new customer base.
So how is this local food sector positioned to cope with these sudden changes?
In the first two weeks of the lockdown, Nourish used a short survey to ask them.
Changes and challenges reported by small local food producers
Our small food producers told us in the survey that the increased demand was brilliant. They also said they felt overwhelmed with it.
Meeting demand at this time of the year is a challenge for food producers in the best of years. We are in the ‘hungry gap’, when it’s too early to harvest this year’s fresh produce and we have already used up much of our winter crops and stored produce. Seeing that they rely on their suppliers from elsewhere, they reported shortages and unpredictability of supplies, and suddenly greatly increased prices. Disruptions they said, can be due to a wide range of reasons, not least, people getting sick, and the number and range of small suppliers that keep them going. They were also expecting further shortages due to fewer pickers, packers and drivers, partly because there will be fewer migrant workers around. They also reported being hampered by an inability to obtain tools and materials, and arrange repairs.
Processing new orders means additional admin, alongside the many enquiries about existing orders, changed delivery addresses, and more. In a small business, staying on top of admin is a challenge at the best of times.
Perhaps the hardest challenge they reported was that there is ‘uncertainty about everything: not knowing what to do, who is doing what, what are the gaps, who is in charge’.
However, many said that they valued their strong sense of purpose, provided by the nature of the work and strong ethical principles. They wrote about good things emerging such as new collaborations, speedier decision-making, and thinking outside the box, resulting in creative ways of reducing variable overheads within a matter of days. They reported many good examples of this e.g. upgrading the web-based ordering system. Others, though, reported that it will take them a while to adapt as the nature of their business prevents this flexibility e.g. the cows will continue to deliver their milk every day despite cafes (80% of their market) having closed.
Scaling up small food production
The challenges for small producers in quickly rising to meet a greatly increased and shifting demand are twofold. One is that small scale producers are inherently constrained by human scale production. The other is the complexity of their logistics. Both of these are also their strength.
Limited capacity to quickly scale up is built into the way that many small food businesses operate. It is production on a human scale that is their unique selling point as it ensures a more direct link and hence a closer relationship between the producer, the people they feed and their unique produce. A baker can bake a finite number of loaves in their oven per day, no matter how many new customers they have. Beyond that point, more ovens and skilled bakers or assistants are needed to increase that number. As each additional small baking business is likely to produce its own slightly different styles of bread, expansion of the sector results in high-quality local jobs and an interesting range of fresh bread available.
Being an integral part of a local economy means having complex logistics by definition. This diverse network creates high-value jobs and brings about a circular economy (where money spent is invested locally), stimulating economic development in a wide sense, especially where these businesses are based in rural areas.
Additional benefits of small scale food production
The small local food sector is generally environmentally more sustainable precisely because of the closer links preserved in their methods and in the scale at which their food is produced. These are better for biodiversity and wildlife, kinder to animals, protective of the soil, and generally good for other common goods and environmental services. A thriving local food sector of small producers is of crucial importance to everyone’s well-being and does all the things we need to be doing to ensure that we have a future.
The challenge is, in the words of one of the respondents, ‘how we build on this momentum rather than returning to what for many will be considered a norm’ once this crisis has passed.
Supporting our local food economy
The sector’s economic fragility is in a great part due to their position in a world where large food monopolies have their say. That kind of fragility can be addressed by solid national support. The list of measures that can be taken to support this sector to thrive is long and these measures are long overdue. Here is a start:
• Dispersed essential infrastructure e.g. mobile abattoirs, markets
• Vocational courses to help establish many more small-scale food businesses ranging from bread baking, cheese making, to bee keeping, and upskill existing producers
• Making available land for small food producers
• Support with developing networks, promoting collective brands and certification
• Suitable business and financial support
Focusing in on the last item, an example is developing and promoting share schemes like community supported agriculture (CSAs) that enable small producers through challenging times. Guaranteed funds are needed for essential on-going investments throughout the year, they help with confidence and these schemes encourage a closer relationship with food producers. In the UK these schemes are rare and typically only offered by particular producers such as veg box producers. There is much potential to introduce these for processors, retailers, and a wide range of other producers (bakeries, cheese makers, small suppliers of fish, farm shops…) as is common in other European countries and the US.
The Scottish Agriculture Bill: an opportunity to grow and strengthen the local food economy
It takes a crisis like this to remind us of the importance of our local food sector and of its fragility. Of the need to support it more systematically and strategically so that it can be a more reliable and sustainable source of food for us into the future, keep our local economy thriving and contribute more significantly to protecting and restoring our environment. It should therefore have a large place in any plans to build a more sustainable food future.
One of the tasks of The Scottish Agriculture Bill is to work out a system to replace EU CAP payments. The debate is about shifting away from the traditional mantra of maximising productivity in the short term to ensuring that farming is done in more sustainable ways, compatible with protecting our soils, preserving biodiversity, and minimising carbon output in the longer term. Imposing duties such as protecting environmental services is on the agenda. This Bill provides a real opportunity to move subsidies away from the larger, more damaging producers and towards rewarding smaller more sustainable producers by acknowledging and formalising their contributions to environmental services and rural development. The Agriculture Bill could properly support the local food economy and help transition our food system towards one based on agroecological methods.
In the Netherlands, Carola Schouten, their Minister of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality (notice her title!) recently announced publicly their commitment to change fundamentally the way food is produced and agriculture is conducted as one of the most profitable export industries of her country, calling it Circular Agriculture. The Scottish Agricultural Bill is our chance to write these new approaches into law.