In Praise of Short Supply Chains

By Francesca Price

Photo credit: Matt Eich, We Feed the World

As the coronavirus pandemic affects every area of the food supply chain, the ORFC team find out how Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), box schemes and others working with shorter supply chains are responding to the sudden huge demand for their supplies.

For many people farming, growing or producing food in the UK, the date of March 16th will be etched on their memory forever. This was the first of the daily press conferences given by the government in response to the coronavirus crisis and the date that Boris Johnson recommended the public no longer visited pubs or restaurants. It was also the day the great British public really understood we were facing a crisis of such enormity that our normal food supply chains could be affected and started looking for alternatives, fast.

Within days, CSAs, box schemes, independent and alternative food suppliers received thousands of enquiries. CSAs used to attracting a dozen or so new members a year had so many people wanting to sign up they were forced to close their books. The bigger box schemes like Shillingford Organics in Devon doubled their customer base while the Riverford website received 43 million impressions in one week. Meanwhile, others who supplied the catering and restaurant business were left with no customers at all and had to find new ways to distribute their food.  One week later, the country was in lockdown and farmers, and food producers had been officially named as “key workers”—i.e., one of the most important groups of people in our society.

While the public elevation in status has been welcomed (of course, we always knew they were key workers!), the sudden changes to business and scale of the demand has been overwhelming to many small-scale producers across the country, especially at a time when staff could be ill or too vulnerable to work. Even the box scheme giant, Riverford, struggled to cope, closing their website as orders grew from the average 55,000 a week to 70,000 in a few days. “We’ve had to re-employ all our sales and marketing team as delivery drivers and customer service personnel,” says founder, Guy Watson.

Photo credit: Matt Eich, We Feed the World

Down the road, a smaller Devon producer, Chagfarm, were flooded with enquiries from people suddenly wanting to become members. Their ambitious goal for the coming year of taking the membership to 150 was reached within days, and they were forced to turn people away for fear of not being able to supply enough produce.  Founder Ed Hamer says, “We grow most of our own produce, but especially at this time of year we rely on other local organic suppliers like Shillingford to supplement our weekly boxes, and they’re supplying everyone else. For us, the upside of the restaurants closing was it meant a lot of the produce that would normally go to the entertainment and leisure sector is now going straight out to households.”

Supply is one of the biggest concerns for most of the smaller CSAs and box schemes. Jean Bergin runs Local Greens, a box scheme which now supplies 700 households in South East London (up 170 on two weeks ago).  “We are very concerned about supply as most of our produce comes from eight small farms in Kent, Essex and Suffolk and then is topped up from Langridge’s, the large organic wholesaler. We already know that the UK’s supply of stored vegetables is gone and we’re now having to rely on supplies from the Netherlands, but we don’t know what will happen there. The next big challenge is labour, as nobody can get migrant workers in. If one of our farms can’t supply us, it will be a problem”.

These are issues reiterated by Page Dykstra from the CSA Network UK, which represents 100 CSAs around the UK.  “The vast majority of our CSAs buy in carrots, onions and root vegetables at this time of year, but the prices are all over the place and smaller CSAs are getting pushed out by the bigger ones. They’re also the ones more likely to rely on volunteers and because of the social distancing rules they’ve had to cut back on their help. The ones that are doing best are the ones with the shortest supply chains.”

It isn’t just fruit and vegetable suppliers who have seen such an upturn in demand. Josiah Meldrum runs Homedod’s, an independent company supplying British pulses and grains direct to customers. He says, “We haven’t come up for air since March 16th. Normally, we’d pack 50 – 60 orders a day.  At the moment, we’re doing 250 – 300 orders a day, which is unmanageable. At first, we reduced the range on the website to 5 kg and 25 kg bags but it didn’t make any difference – people just bought those instead!”  He’s currently spending 14 – 15 hours a day in the beanstore and jokes he’s worried he’ll get scurvy. “By the time I get to the shops, there’s no fruit and vegetables left. I’ve ended up eating a lot of nettles!”.

Photo credit: Sian Davey, We Feed the World

Similarly, Josh Healy, who runs North Aston Dairy in Oxfordshire, has been flooded with enquiries for his door-to-door delivery service of organic pasteurised milk in glass bottles.   “At one stage, we were getting 40 enquiries a day, but we can’t produce too much more. We’ve now got an extra 100 customers across six villages, but that’s our limit.”  Across the country, there are stories of people turning up, bottle in hand, at the gates of their nearest dairy farmer hoping to secure a direct supply of milk. Josh says he hopes the support for his milk and other dairy farmers will continue once the crisis is over. “Perhaps it will be the return of the local milkman?” he suggests.

While many small-scale producers are battling with an unprecedented demand, others have lost their entire customer base overnight.  Landworkers’ Alliance (LWA) members Ashley and Kate Wheeler have run a very successful market garden at Trill Farm Garden in Devon for 11 years, which supplies around 25 restaurants each week with organic salad and herbs.  The March 16th announcement left them reeling and wondering what they were going to do with the 150 kilos of salad they were due to take out of the ground that week, and every week thereafter.

Ash’s parents had run an organic box scheme in the 90’s and seeing their hard work, Ash swore never to go down the same road. But now, there was no option. Putting out a call on their Facebook and Instagram pages, Ash and Kate had 150 willing box scheme customers within three days. “By the following Tuesday, Kate and I were both on the road delivering boxes,” says Ash. “The first week I drove around for four hours but by the second week, Digby, my nine-year-old son, came with me and put the postcodes into the Sat Nav, and we got that down to two hours!”

Roughly two-thirds of their produce at present is sourced from elsewhere, but as the team at Trill Farm are able to turn around the cropping plan, they will be able to supply more of their own produce in their weekly boxes. “It felt weird,” says Ash, “after 11 years of running a successful business and working semi-sensible hours to be back at the beginning, but I do feel lucky to be able to continue to work at all. Lots of our friends are in worse situations, and we’ve also had great support from LWA members.” It was through LWA contacts that they were able to get a delivery van, find customers and now have growers lined up for the future. “And luckily,” adds Ash, “there’s plenty of software packages out there that help with orders so I’m not having to spend all my time in the office, like my Mum did!”

Photo credit: Kate Peeters, We Feed the World

Despite the concerns, the last couple of weeks have underscored the advantages of shorter supply chains and alternative food and farming models.  While millions across the country pick over the leftover fruit and vegetables in supermarkets (where they have to queue to enter), CSA or box scheme members are receiving boxes of freshly picked fruit and vegetables delivered to their door or at least, nearby drop off points. Also, while shoppers are forced to regard each other with fear, CSA and box scheme communities have pulled together to help their more vulnerable members, dropping off to those who can’t get to pick up points or paying a bit extra so that members who have lost their jobs can still eat good food. “In London, there is a community spirit that I haven’t seen in 30 years of living here,” says Jean Bergin. “The offers of help are overwhelming; it’s really connected us to our customers. Now they’ve got time on their hands, they really value the service we’re offering.”

Once the immediate challenge of supply is over, the next challenge will be how to keep such an increased customer-base engaged.  As Natasha Soares of Better Food Traders says, “I really hope citizens in the future recognise that in order to have a resilient supply of food, farmers need to be supported all year round when times are bad as well as when times are good. They can’t just pull a crop out of the ground like a magician pulls a rabbit out of a hat.  It’s about diversity of supply; supermarkets have a stranglehold on the food retail business, but in order to have a resilient food supply we need to source our food from local, sustainable farmers.”