16th August 2010

Getting To Market

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Sam Henderson of Agrarian Renaissance, an organisation seeking to reconnect local farmers to their communities, writes about ways to effectively link customers with primary producers:

If Britain is to attain “food sovereignty” or “self reliance” – the ability to produce what we can produce as locally as possible, with maximum biological and cultural variety, and to then trade surpluses and specialities between localities, regions, countries and continents – one of the clearest needs is a way to effectively link customers with primary producers without intervening distributors, wholesalers, processors and retailers, which add costs to the final product and, as they grow and gain market dominance, demand greater volumes of increasingly standardised “raw materials” while taking more and more value away from those who are actually caring for the land.

Online technologies obviously present a massive opportunity to make this possible, and there have been various attempts to design systems that can do the job (to name but a few: Big Barn, Local Food Directory, Free Range Review, and  Local Food Advisor). There are also various box schemes, some national, some regional, which make fresh food directly available wherever you are.

So it’s great to see loads of ideas posted to the Challenge website addressing exactly this problem!

To help nudge the ideas along I’ve decided to try and list a few of the problems with the systems that exist so far, from the point of view of a farm trying to sell direct, as well as from a customer’s perspective.

Delivery – often there’ll be the producers within a few miles of each other to provide a full shopping basket, but the most that the best systems can do is to let you know what you can get where, and even to let you order direct from all of them in a single shopping basket. The problems come with delivery. Each producer has to arrange its own delivery, which takes resource and investment, and all those separate costs then get passed on to the consumer, not to mention all the food miles that start clocking up! Somerset Local Food Direct have gone some way to solving this, building a group of around 60 producers, allowing subscribers to build a weekly shopping basket that is delivered from a central warehouse.

Convenience – but what’s sacrificed in a system like that is convenience. Orders have to be submitted a couple of days in advance so the producers can deliver to the central warehouse for boxes to be packed and sent out. If you’re not looking for delivery, you might end up spending half a day going from farm to farm! There’s a strong argument that we shouldn’t expect to be able to get anything whenever we want it (taking it to extremes, strawberries at midnight in December), but at the very least it’s got to be easy to get all we need without going too far out of our way.

Trust – this one cuts both ways. Customers have to know what they’re getting, and when they’ll get it, and producers need to be sure they will get paid and won’t be wasting their time. Beyond that, local food systems really thrive when they’re based on personal relationships, and that’s also part of the joy they can bring. A great idea I’ve come across is Yumshare – an online system to help make it easier to form buying groups. Groups start by pooling orders from wholesalers, with the intention that they can then get in touch with local farmers and use the same system to buy their produce direct once a minimum order level has been reached. I’m sure there are loads of other approaches, and the obvious model is ebay, a brilliant way of generating trust between buyers and sellers.

The Deal – in many ways this is the biggest challenge. It’s easy to solve the others by introducing a charge per order for producers, or a buyer who takes responsibility for selling to customers in return for a lower price. Both take margins from the producers, but without as many opportunities to develop the relationships that lead to repeat business, so that the costs becomes just a cost, and not as much of an investment in future business as it would be if the producers were doing their own marketing.

So it’s time to get thinking about how to get those food links linking!