Local food is for life, not just for Covid

Pete Ritchie, Executive Director of Nourish Scotland, is also the co-owner of Whitmuir Organic Farm, shop and café. Today he writes from his perspective as a local food business owner during the initial weeks of the Covid-19 crisis.

Photo credit: Graham Hamilton

Even though he’s already retired twice, Robert was at Shotts abattoir at 6 this morning to pick up 4 more lambs which Matthew took in for us on Tuesday as we’ve gone through all our own. Sheena’s dropping off extra milk from Bryce in Ayrshire and we’ve got more eggs coming in from Dumfries as Margaret’s hens in Peebles can’t go any faster. We’ve doubled the order from Donna at Breadshare, Sascha is keeping us going with chicken and Wilma’s sending cheese. Ewan’s picking the spinach and leeks and sorting out the veg boxes with help from Graham in North Berwick and Roger in Bathgate. Angus’s team are flat out milling our flour in Drem. Vicki’s other business is on hold, so she’s joined the delivery team.

Local food is a relationship, not a commodity. Like every other local food business in the UK just now, we’re working flat out to meet an extraordinary surge in demand. Our systems and supply chains are creaking under the strain, and we’re wondering if now is really the time to migrate our website to a shiny new platform.  

But in the middle of it all are people, and care. The people in London who have set up a weekly delivery to a relative living near the farm are showing their love through food, and it’s a privilege at this crazy time to be able to help.

So what’s next?  For us, sure, some of our new customers will go back to the multiples for all their shopping. We can’t do one hour delivery slots, and our prices are higher because we are small and we are organic. There still won’t be a bus to our farm shop. But we hope that some will stay, here and across the UK.

Why does it matter? First, though the supply chain didn’t break this time, it certainly frayed. Scotland produces far more food than it needs for its own population – but getting it to people involves long food chains, but doesn’t need to. Flour, vegetables, meat, oats, milk, cheese, eggs and many other products could be connecting more farms to more people more closely.  Even if 10% of our food reached us that way (rather than the 1 or 2% currently) it would provide valuable resilience in a future crisis.

The thing about black swans is you wait for ages, and then three come along all at once. This pandemic may be the stress test we never need to learn from; or it may encourage us to take out some insurance.

Second, because this crisis has reminded us that people make food, and that we rely on them every day – people here, and people across the world. Local food reconnects citizens to food producers, reasserts food as part of community, and empowers citizens to shape the food system to reflect their values, whether those are about the environment, health, fair wages or animal welfare. Local food creates more jobs per meal, more meaning per mouthful, more social capital per shopping basket.

So what should we do to strengthen the local food sector in Scotland?  To date, Government has focused on exports, commodities and growth. Now, some of that focus has to shift from production to connection, investing in the local food economy.

Some of this is about access to land, and to skills. If a young person in Scotland wants a qualification in market gardening, she will have to go to Europe. Some of it is about innovation – whether that is reinventing the Scottish glasshouse industry, using our wealth of renewable energy to grow our own Mediterranean diet, or creating a network of right-size cow with calf dairies in the green belt.  

Some of it is about co-operation – in marketing, logistics, processing infrastructure, and supplies.  And some of it is about public money for public goods – whether that is investing in organics for climate and nature, supporting livelihoods in fragile rural areas or widening access to local food through community food hubs.

But while Government has a key role, all of us can make a difference. Our new customers are hugely appreciative, but here’s the thing: for the last ten years we have had about 200 customers who pay us a standing order every month through thick and thin and that’s given us the resilience every small business needs.

We naturally take out direct debits for our fuel, our phone, our mortgage: but most of us treat food as a spot purchase. It’s time to invest in the local food sector, so that it’s still here the next time we remember we need it.