My interest in food is a pretty deep rooted thing. My Grandfather was a farmer’s son, and he and my Mother were both people who gardened and grew things throughout their lives. My Mother had often gone hungry during the war and during food rationing, and took the business of preserving food, and wasting nothing in a pretty serious way.
I’ve been growing food for about 15 years. Not well, but with enough committment to learn how difficult it can be. I also now have a locally based food business making preserves, largely from local fruits, and selling them, largely to local outlets.
In The last year, high energy costs, major price rises in food and the economic downturn have seen a great resurgence in interest in growing things. It is a highly trendy thing to do. I have quite a number of friends who are sowing vegetable seeds for the first time, with high hopes of a good harvest. I would not want to discourage this in anyway. Growing vegetables is quite a good way of spending time. Plenty of healthy exercise, A good way of making yourself focus on something quite intently, and a way of slowing yourself down. Also, if you are fortunate with the soil and the weather, and there are not too many pests in your patch you may get some good things to eat.
It is all good and having first hand experience of growing things will make us appreciate the skill of those who do it for a living.
The food supplies that we currently rely on through the supermarkets are mostly transported large distances. This is not good news. The fuel costs add considerably to the finished price, it is using fuel that we would do better to conserve, and it may mean that we are not encouraging the growers in our own area to grow the food that they could, and provide employment for local people in the process.
Most people accept in principle that it would be a good idea to be eating much more in the way of locally grown food, but getting from where we are now to where we would like to be is not an entirely simple matter.
My impression is that a lot of producers of local meats and cheese are doing quite well in getting a balance that works for them, though they still may have the capacity to produce a lot more than they are currently doing. The weakest area in terms of local supply and demand is in vegetables and fruit, largely because they need to be picked, distributed, bought and eaten within a very short timescale.
So most of the rest of this article really focuses on what needs to be done for Fruit and vegetables. If we can get supply and demand right for these then the systems we create for this will also work for other supplies.
Food production happens over a long time scale, so you cannot turn it on and off like a tap. Farmers have not got the resources to put in too much in the way of speculative crops, hoping they can find a market for it. They need to be confident of finding a market before they can afford to make the investment in higher production.
We are not going to arrive overnight at the point were we can produce most of the food that we need in our own area, but we can take some steps towards making it come a little closer.
Some of the ingredients that need to be in the mix are:
Information: We need to know what people are growing, and where they have the capacity to grow more. ( groups like Rural hub may be able to play a key role in this).
Policy led demand: The policy of requiring schools and other public bodies to source some of their supplies locally will help to create a market big enough to stimulate new production. A lot of growers will need help to access this kind of contract.
Stimulating consumer demand: The end user needs to know what there is and how to get it. There are local authority projects doing some of this already (the internet may also play a key role in this)
Distribution: We need means of getting the goods from the producer to the consumer. Farmer’s markets are a useful starting point, but once a month is not enough for either producer or consumer. More can be done by encouraging take up through small local shops, perhaps also by Supermarkets adopting more local produce. Internet based ordering systems with community drop off points may also play a role, and existing delivery systems like Milkmen might also play a part.
Preservation and processing: One of the inevitable factors of producing food locally is that you get a mixture of “hungry gaps” when there is little or nothing available and gluts when you have more than enough of something. That is why you will seldom get a farmer growing something like runner beans. They grow really well most summers, but if everyone else can grow a few in their garden, and they all crop together, then farmers simply can’t get a decent price for their efforts, so we go on importing beans from Kenya! We will need to encourage businesses that are preserving foods and processing them into cooked or frozen dishes, so that gluts are not wasted but can be brought out throughout the year.
Education: if we are to encourage people to make the most of those things that can be produced locally, then a lot of people are going to need some basic information on how to cook, and how to preserve. There are projects which are beginning to do this, and this can be improved by better use of the internet.
Employment: There is a great deal of farming land which is currently not fully utilised, This is in part because farmer’s have had to cut back on the numbers of people that they employ. Growing fruit and vegetables is pretty time consuming and would need more people involved, so If all these factors begin to take effect there should be a need for more people to be employed in local farming.
These suggestions are not going to produce instant results, but by trying to keep all these different elements in balance it should be possible to begin to build up local production and demand.