Farming through a pandemic: the better food shed story

Photo credit: Staff team at Growing Communities, Hackney

Photo credit: Staff team at Growing Communities, Hackney

Sustain is sharing this blog from alliance member Growing Communities as it describes the experience of working in the front lines of supplying healthy, fresh, organic food to communities across London during the Covid-19 pandemic. Written by Rachel Dring. 

We talked to Danny Fisher, the Better Food Shed Manager, about how the last few weeks has been for him and his team. They supply all the community box schemes in London with organic produce every week, coordinating all the orders for the small local farms like Sarah Green's Organics in Essex and Ripple Farm Organics in Kent, while also buying in from larger farms when needed. Danny performs quite a juggling act every week to ensure we and our sister box schemes across London are supplied with the most ethical and sustainable produce possible.

Danny performs quite a juggling act every week to ensure we and our sister box schemes across London are supplied with the most ethical and sustainable produce possible.

Sourcing for the box scheme

Danny has warned us that the next two months are going to be very difficult in terms of supply – they were already going to be difficult due to the hungry gap and the weather we've had. But Covid-19 coronavirus has created additional challenges. We asked Danny what's been the biggest challenge so far and how he sees things playing out in the next few months.

Let's start with the weather

A lot of what we're eating throughout the spring is winter stores of roots and cabbages – these see us through the hungry gap, complemented by fresh leafy greens like spinach, salad and rocket, which are the main thing in abundance at this time of year. However, the very wet autumn meant a lot of crops were wiped out and farmers weren't able to get onto the land to harvest the things we would be eating now.

Danny says, “Royal Oak Farm lost lots of stuff – complete fields washed out. Their cabbages should have seen us through early spring but without those crops, we've used up all the other winter stores of things we should have been getting onto now.”

And then the wet early spring, that brought all those floods, meant farmers couldn't get onto the land as planned so planting has been delayed, which means the hungry gap will last longer than usual.

Panic buying across the entire industry

Then coronavirus happened and that increased demand, not just from our group of box schemes, but supermarkets and the bigger players like Riverford. Panic buying across the entire industry means it's been hard to get hold of supply from bigger producers. Things which had reasonable stocks left like potatoes, carrots and onions, got chewed through in one week. As Danny says, “Our farmer at Newfields Farm in Yorkshire thought he had four weeks of carrots left for us, next week he had none.”

Our farmer at Newfields Farm in Yorkshire thought he had four weeks of carrots left for us, next week he had none.

On top of that, Ripple Farm and Sarah Green who are among our core suppliers, have had a similar surge in customer numbers for their own box schemes so they have less produce to offer us. Sarah has stopped doing any wholesale to other box schemes for a few weeks until she can get on top of everything.

So the Better Food Shed has had to go into the EU market for more stuff. The wholesale market is much more unpredictable so this will make ordering a bit more tricky as it will be harder to guarantee sufficient quantities of product lines.

Labour shortages

I asked Danny whether labour shortages would be an issue, as the papers are reporting plans to fly in seasonal workers from Lithuania to pick strawberries, asparagus, etc.

Thankfully he says this is less of an issue for our farms. “The organic sector is relatively well positioned to deal with these crises,” explains Danny. “We work with farms with more steady workforces, they don't rely on agency staff so much. Organic farms, by their nature, have to be more resilient.” In contrast, the conventional sector is ruthless and much more reliant on agency staff from Eastern Europe. He says, “They're fantastically effective when they work, but they're a lot more vulnerable to market forces and disruptions to the supply chain, which we're seeing now.”

“We work with farms with more steady workforces, they don't rely on agency staff so much. Organic farms, by their nature, have to be more resilient.”

This crisis has really sharpened the focus of what we do at Growing Communities and why we do it. One of our key principles is championing ecological food and farming – this partly means supporting small-scale farms. We're seeing now one of the advantages in this current crisis is how the size of these farms is the key factor in not needing agency staff. Small farms have more of a mix of crops and therefore consistent level of work throughout the year. This means they're able to offer more regular and stable work, with fairer wages. The weekly nature of your veg subscription means our farmers are able to plan ahead and guarantee a regular and stable income for themselves and their teams.

Another of our key principles is trading fairly. This means we pay the farmers what they need to be able to produce food sustainably. This again, is proving to work in our favour. It's not just for the sake of some lofty ideal of goodness, but in a very pragmatic way, fairness not only enables our farmers to retain staff but also means farmers are more loyal to us.

As Danny puts it, “In our sector relationships are key. We're paying for the cost of production unlike the large buyers who pay way under the true cost, so we're not going to be outbid by supermarkets, our farmers are loyal to us.” Danny adds. “Having said that, Riverford are also experiencing a surge in demand and are also seeking to source from our suppliers, so that could make things difficult.”

Hopefully you won't notice these supply challenges over the coming months as our team work hard to secure the best quality and variety possible, but you may notice the bags will feel lighter, as the one thing we should have in abundance from our small local farms is leafy greens – spinach, chard, salad, herbs, etc. The bag contents may also feel a bit more repetitive from week to week, with higher than usual reliance on basics to fill the bags. We hope this will be an opportunity to expand your repertoire of potato, carrot and beetroot recipes while you await the brilliant bounty of summer produce that is on its way.

Speaking to Danny really helped me see how important the qualities of a community box scheme are. It's easy to see how local, seasonal, organic produce promotes environmental sustainability. But the other side to the sustainability coin is resilience.

It's easy to see how local, seasonal, organic produce promotes environmental sustainability. But the other side to the sustainability coin is resilience.

We didn't foresee pandemics as being one of the things for which we needed to create resilience in the food system. But what we're learning is that we're stronger for the relationships we've formed, the commitments we've made and the fairness and transparency we've created in the food system. And we thank our box scheme members for being part of that.

A range of insightful 'Farming through a pandemic'  blogs can be read on the Growing Communities pages here.


07/05/2020
Coronavirus Food Alert

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Coronavirus Food Alert: Sustain's work on food resilience in the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.We are helping secure food for vulnerable people and supporting local emergency responses.


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By Rachel Dring

Rachel Dring is the Marketing Assistant for Growing Communities, the award-winning community food trading scheme based in Hackney that also helped to found the Better Food Traders network.

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