Connecting with Farmers for Food

Catherine St Germans, co-founder of Port Eliot Festival and last year’s Regenerative Agriculture Gathering, tells the story of how a group of people came together to create a database of Farms To Feed Us. Originally published by Oxford Real Farming Conference

On March 24th, the night after the UK went into lockdown, I arranged my first Zoom gathering with some members of the Regenerative Agriculture WhatsApp group I am part of, to talk about what was happening and how we could help each other. On the Zoom was Fred Price from Gothelney Farm near Bristol, Abby Rose of Farmerama Radio, Neil Heseltine of Hill Top Farm in the Yorkshire Dales, Oil Baker, a young grower with a seven acre farm near Liskeard, Sophie Chatz of Earthly Creative who had been helping the local food movement in Bristol, with others calling in from Cornwall to London. 

Cathy St Germans, photo by Beth Druce

We had all heard about the CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture) and veg box schemes being overwhelmed with thousands of new customers, while farmers had been left with none and were trying to set up new routes to market. I came to the group with an idea I’d had a few days before: a national database to help connect citizens with small scale farmers, local producers and businesses.

The crisis had laid bare the fragility of our food system and I wanted to highlight the farmers that were waiting to bring well farmed and delicious food straight from a resilient food and farming network that was still flowing! No supermarket and middleman required. 

The next day, we put a call out for help and gathered a small team of volunteers. We wanted it to be lo-fi and easily accessible by everyone, including the elderly and those who do not use social media. It needed to be easily printable and shareable.

We created a simple Google form which farmers could access via social media and easily sign up to, listing their farm details, produce and how to get hold of it either by collection from community hubs, the farm, or – less common three weeks ago but more so every day – via online ordering and national delivery. We came up with the name Farms to Feed Us.

Farms to feed us Icon
The Farms To Feed Us logo was designed by friend, writer and artist, Brian Selznick @thebrianselznick⁣ ⁣⁣

Fred Price, of Gothelney Farm, was one of the first to sign up, with more following over the next few days. We launched the database on April 4th with 70 farmers. An hour after we went live The Guardian blog picked it up… Suddenly, over 100 people were viewing the document and in 48 hours over 2,000 people had accessed it. Two days later a longer piece came out in The Guardian on initiatives, including ours, that were helping to sustain the food chain, followed by one in the Financial Times, then the Sunday Telegraph, and it snowballed from there.

We were bowled over by numerous offers of help from brilliant people: Catherine Chung, a Cornwall-based Climate Scientist, saw a post on my Instagram and has been helping manage our database ever since. Sophie Chatz, of Earthly Creative who had been helping local Bristol food movement was on board from the start. Katy Severson was setting something similar up in the US so we worked collaboratively at the beginning. Tom Chatfield, who, until two weeks earlier, had been working at Quickes Cheese in Devon and various farming organisations have also been supportive: Jimmy Woodrow of Pasture for Life, who came to the Regen-Ag Gathering in November, gave us great advice, along with Vicki Lintern of Rumbullion Farm, the Biodynamic Association, Whole Health Agriculture, The Nature Friendly Farming Network and Francesca Price from ORFC, who all reached out in support and with advice and contacts.

To date, we have 260 farms and small scale producers on the database, and over 9000 people have used the sheet to find locally-farmed food. People seem to like the simplicity of the spreadsheet and lo-fi straightforward approach. We also made it clear we’re a non profit, staffed by volunteers, and we made a very simple website, illustrated with beautiful photographs by Scott Grummet who has been working on an essay on Regenerative Agriculture. 

Oli Baker at Mora Farm, Cornwall @ollofruit – Photo by Scott Grummet

What’s been striking is the innovation, resilience and hard work which has come to the fore: Berts Barrow, a small farm shop, opened a drive-through; Eat Your Greens, a restaurant in Leeds, is selling produce from its suppliers as online groceries – not an uncommon story, but their customers can also donate veg boxes to Pafras Leeds, a local charity supporting refugees and asylum seekers; Sheffield Made, a local producer-founded box scheme, is now sourcing more from other local suppliers.

Angus and Charlie at The Free Company, a rural restaurant in Scotland with its own regeneratively farmed market garden, now drive into Edinburgh with ‘The Veg Club’ delivery service. 95% of Ross Geach’s Padstow Kitchen Garden produce would have gone to local restaurants so he was going to pull back 50% of his business when the shutdown happened, but instead, he opened an honesty box farm shop, started home deliveries and a virtual online food festival highlighting local producers like St Enodoc Asparagus, who thanks to his help, have set up an online shop and are now doing national deliveries.

Photo from the Padstow Kitchen Garden Instagram

There are many many more examples of communities working together response to the crisis, including one of my favourites: the chip shop potato wholesaler, Red Kite Potatoes who supplied 30 chippies in the north of England (20 of which have shut) and is now providing a veg box service of organic produce that he picks up himself, driving around in his van:

I’ve got mouths to feed and farmers to carry on supporting, I don’t want to be taking hand outs from the government if I don’t need to I would rather go out and invent something. We have all got to do our bit.”

In the first 48 hours of the database going live, flour was the first product people were trying to source. One of the members of our Regenerative Agriculture WhatsApp group who works at Duchess Farms contacted us and we were able to direct people to several tons of their flour. Another member alerted us to Brixton Windmill in South London which was milling organic flour everyday.

Initially, there were far more farms and producers signing up in London and the south west, but we put a call out for more farms in the North and Scotland and many more have since joined up. The citizen response has been very positive, with many people saying they had found farms right on their doorstep now doing local or national delivery that they didn’t know were there… “It’s like going into a virtual food tent at the North Devon show – cancelled like so many this year, and one of my big treats,” said one user.  

It’s heartening to see in a recent YouGov poll commissioned by the RSA that 42% say the outbreak has made them value food more, and 1 in 10 have shared something like food or shopping with a neighbour for the first time. Also, more than 19 million (38%) of us are cooking more from scratch and 17 million (33%) are throwing away less food.

Most importantly, 3 million people (6%), have tried a veg box scheme or ordered food from a local farm for the very first time. Those who’ve been able to act quickly and reinvent what they do or how they sell are helping to feed the nation. But the big question for all of us working in this area is how we harness this new energy and markets once the crisis is over.

How do we keep the energy of this moment alive? What will it take to keep citizens loyal to buying direct? I put these questions to some of those in our new network…

Photo from the Berts Barrow Instagram

Wholesale Supplier, Franco Fubini, Founder, Natoora, London: 

“Natoora started life as the first online Farmers Market. Pre-COVID-19, there were three sides to our business: the restaurant side (we supplied over 1,200 restaurants, mainly in London, Paris, and New York), the retail side (which previously existed only in London), and the farming side – we have two farms, one in Sicily and one in Cornwall, and work with 50–60 small scale UK farms.

Our presence in multiple regions gave us a sense of what was happening in Italy on the ground and enabled us to act very quickly. On March 11th we had a meeting to think through what we could do if there was a slowdown. We knew food would continue to be consumed, but it would shift from outside the home into the home.

Restaurants account for 60% of our business in London and 100% in New York. It took us five days to get up and running with home deliveries. When restaurants shut down in New York and London on March 16th and 17th we started our first home deliveries the next day. We were quickly doing a couple of hundred deliveries a day in London, and are now up to over 500 a day. In New York it’s close to 200 a day. We’re adding about 1000 customers a day, with 50,000 customers now registered across the two cities. 

When the restaurants closed our revenue in New York dropped by 95-96%. In London, it was down by 75-80%. The crazy thing is that we’re now back up to 110% of revenue which is nothing short of a miracle. A lot of companies like us have shifted to consumers but are processing orders manually. It’s been a tremendous challenge, but the reality is that all of the technology that we had built for the chefs allows us to do this at scale. 

The supply chain we’ve built with our human relationships and the hubs we’ve set up has allowed us to be unaffected for the most part during this crisis. The fact that our supply chain is so complex and there are a vast number of farmers we pull from gives us a lot of resilience.

When restaurants open back up, we want to keep home delivery going, without a doubt. That will bring its own challenges because we’re using all our capacity right now, but we’re already thinking about it. We’re looking for more farms and growers in the UK, anyone who is farming for flavour and in a way that is supporting and regenerating soils; that’s what we’re most interested in.” 

How do we retain loyalty to buying direct once the COVID-19 Crisis is over? 

“The way we’ll keep the home delivery momentum going is with time. The longer this current situation endures, it will engrain new habits in people, who’ll engage with food and cook a lot more at home vs eating out. Hopefully it will stick. The second component is education: interest in health and eating better encourages more transparency with supply chains, more consciousness about where we buy our food and buying food which tastes better.

Hopefully as things come into a new normal people will continue to buy from local networks. People will think that by spending money with my local farmer they’ll get healthier food and are taking the food system forward to a better place.” 

Catherine Chong, climate finance economist and database coordinator, Farms to Feed Us:

“I was interested in buying direct from farmers even before the COVID-19 outbreak. I was surprised by the discounts offered during the lockdown for premium produce, including fresh organic food. It seemed there was a case of market failure: when the public are chasing after pasta and canned food and there is plenty of affordable if not highly underpriced fresh produce.

I felt strongly about finding ways to learn from farmers and informing the general public about local produce that is in season and abundant. I also hope to have the opportunity to work with these farmers to enumerate the real price and cost of a selection of British produce, to gain insights on whether some produce is indeed underpriced due to lack of transparency and certain practices in the British food supply chain.”

How do we retain loyalty to buying direct once the COVID-19 Crisis is over? 

“Quite often, the fresh produce sold in large supermarkets is harvested in advance of maturity and in preparation for long distance travelling. Buying direct from farmers should mean not just fresher produce but produce that is left to ripen fully.  Where people have tasted the differences between produce that is harvested prematurely vs produce that is picked at peak flavour, there will be loyalty and willingness to pay more.”

Mary Quickes, Quickes Cheese, Exeter, Devon:

“The current focus is on feeding the population and anything non-standard, non-commodity, has been stopped or de-priotised, which has been very difficult. Our online shop which was 1-2% of our business has now become our biggest customer.

We stopped making cheese for three weeks, but recently started again and are looking to perhaps make cheese for the whole of May, but we’ll just have to see what is happening. We have cheese in our store and don’t want the store to get too full. My first priority is to keep our people and customers safe, and my second priority is to keep a business. There is a quote I like to use: ‘It will all be all right in the end and if it is not all right it is not the end.’

My concern is about our delicate food ecology. We have pearl bordered fritillary butterflies in our woods and they are quite rare and what they like to eat as part of their life cycle is violets. When the truck of COVID-19 hit it felt like a similar delicate ecology; our food system, which is made up of around 800 varieties of cheese in the UK with links between chefs and mongers and that whole rich world of beautiful interlinkages and synapsis is in very grave danger.”

How do we retain loyalty to buying direct once the COVID-19 crisis is over? 

“I feel there will be a seismic shift when this crisis is past. People have the power; what you don’t buy doesn’t exist in the world and if you do it does. We need to create a seismic change, a change in the way the tectonic plates flow. I don’t know what those levers are, but I’m committed to a firm belief that people are inspired by their relationship to food and farming. It is about empowering people; the Farms To Feed Us database actions everybody and is a call to action which will not be forgotten.”

Fred Price, Gothelney Farm:  

Fred & the pigs @GothelneyFarm – Photo by Scott Grummet

“The restaurants we supply are in London and a week before they shut down, Ben Chapman of Smoking Goat and Kiln, rang me up and said:  ‘Fred, you have just got to stop killing pigs for us, we are going to have to shut down.’ I could detect the weight on him, knowing he had to lay off  all his staff and knowing he had built these restaurants explicitly around authentic relationships with suppliers, me being one of them. However, he knew what that meant for me: 60 percent of what we produce every week is pork.

People talk about a hunger gap, but for a mixed arable farm like mine, at this time of year my only income is pigs. In terms of a cash flow, which is a selfish introspective thing to think about I know, it meant £7k a month gone, and I remember thinking, what is going to happen? I spent a morning in the office working out cash flow and worked out that if we got to June and were not killing the planned number of pigs by then we would be in trouble.

So we decided to start doing direct sale delivery boxes once a month of our pork. We have also looked at the way we were operating as a farm and how we can put in place a response which is more resilient and sustainable. I don’t want this to be something we do for six months until the restaurants open and then go back to business as usual.

The crisis has focused my mind on what the ultimate is, which is to send people you know a box of meat. Resilience, complexity and human scale has been reinforced and the importance of direct supply chains. Anyone who is doing direct sales with people at home has been absolutely fine, if not blown out of the water by demand. Anyone who had a greater degree of separation, even me supplying restaurants, has been less resilient.”

How do we retain loyalty to buying direct once the COVID-19 crisis is over? 

“People are reimagining their relationship with food. All of a sudden people’s relationship to what they are buying and bringing home has changed. One thing that threatens what we do is people who do not care about food, but clearly they do, and that is an exciting prospect; we can tap into that behavioural aspect.

It is possible to have really fundamental changes in the way society as a whole is acting out of this time. The Farms to Feed Us database is about empowerment and has shown we can act and change the way things are done. We can change our food system by dealing with people directly and putting a relationship between you and them, rather than a relationship just being a transaction and about profit.

This moment of change will continue if we make sure it is on a human scale and based around relationships and authenticity. It won’t continue if it’s motivated by the same values that drive our current economic food system, which are competition, profit and vertical integration.”

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