Saturday, 21 March 2009

Fairtrade should apply to our producers too

My visit to the farmers' market this morning has left me feeling quite depressed. Apart from one stall whose produce is always snapped up the moment they start trading there are signs that producers are struggling. Independent shops too. The nearby organic butcher admitted sales were down and that the farm from which his meat comes had had to lay off workers.

But a new Italian-style café nearby was buzzing with people out for breakfast and brunch.

What to make of it all? Obviously some people have money but don't choose to spend it on organic food - or even on cooking from scratch. If half of the local food producers go to the wall I don't honestly think they would very much care. There's a new Waitrose down the road so what's the problem?

It's the people who have bought into the organic and local movement over the last 10 years that I'm more concerned about. They surely did so for a reason - healthier food for their families and/or supporting small producers to ensure a diverse local food culture. Now that times are hard surely these things are just as important? Even if you buy slightly less often or spend less when you do, it makes a difference.

Small producers don't always do themselves a favour, true. Being small and farming organically doesn't necessarily mean you produce quality food. Pricing is sometimes ridiculous (some artisanal cheeses cost more per kilo than fillet steak) Few seem to use any imagination about the way they present and market their goods - offering deals to tempt their customers into buying more but the main problem seems to be that their case is going by default.

The Fairtrade Foundation has done a fantastic job of making us more conscious of the value of supporting third world producers but someone needs to do a similar job for our homegrown ones or very few of them will survive the current downturn.

And those of us who do still buy from them should be prepared to put our heads above the parapet and say how important it is, even at the risk of jibes about being elitist. If it was worth paying extra to feed our families healthy food a year ago, it still is now, even if we have to give up something else to do it.

Is this a fair analysis? Let me know what you think. Are you finding your local food shops are struggling? Have you cut down the amount you spend on food from small producers? Do you feel you can afford to pay the prices they charge? Do we owe them a living or should market forces prevail?


C said...

I agree with your analysis Fiona. Sadly I work full time in an area which has poor access to non-supermarket food otherwise I hope I would choose this option more. I perhaps don't try as hard as I might though.

However, I did happen to notice on a packet of Dove's Farm plain flour a while ago that it is 'Ethically' produced. Their website has a little more info on this, but not much. It's definitely a step forward in terms of Fairtrade for our producers too, which I totally agree with. I don't mind spending that bit more if I know the farmer is benefitting and that the farm is well run/supporting local businesses/exercising exceptional animal welfare managagement etc or that a middle man isn't getting a big cut of it, but it's sometimes hard to know who is genuine and who isn't at farmer's markets now. Which is an equally sad thing to have to say.


We do our best to shop local and support them when we can.

Maisie said...

I have found that the Co-op as a supermarket is good at supporting not only local but also British farmers/producers in general.

Although there is a premium to pay for this I do think that at times it is worth it.

Fiona Beckett said...

Certainly not saying that supermarkets don't support local producers C and Maisie though they often exact a high price for doing so. I agree about Dove's and the Co-op - they're both good companies. The Co-op have just taken over our local Somerfield which I hope will be rebranded.

Glad to hear you shop local when you can Norfolk Coast. I think that's the answer. Making a commitment to spend a proportion of our weekly food budget on local producers and in local shops. Even if it's only 10%

Gerry said...

Whatever happened to 'Food from Britain'? They were very active 20 years ago(oh my was it that long). They pretty much pushed the ideas of locally produced food in to the mainstream. Do they still exist?

James said...

I called in at the local cheese farm this afternoon to pick up some cheese for mothers day (far more useful than flowers), and Mr. Farmer said things were just as busy as normal, maybe more so. So that's a relief. And the other farm I visit most often is the same. The reason I buy things locally is that the quality is so much better than what you can find in a supermarket. If the quality is there I think people - like me - will stick to it. The thought of buying meat in a supermarket now just..... I'd rather be vegetarian. It would be a lot cheaper of course, but then if you spend more on quality food which makes you feel good, you can spend less on other things you don't need so much(freecycle's great). And anyway it was people focusing just on money that caused the current finiancial problems in the first place.

If you're in the food business, with the buy local ethic it also helps to stay small - that way you're not to be answerable to investors, boards, accountants etc, unless they turn it into a marketing point - I do see 'support your local farmers' boards or nitices outside some places.

You can also supplement spending more on local/ organic produce by forraging for other ingredients. Elderflower cordial - now there's something you can make for the price of just the sugar and lemons. And it's the nectar of the gods - you can't manufacture something like that - and how much do you save on elderflower presse at c. £1.50 - £2.00? Nice way to spend a bit of time on your day off too.

I also think when you're buying from local producers you're helping your local economy too - they employ local people and without their jobs you'll be paying their benefits - and the whole food chain is really large - from the farm to the butcher, the vets, the slaughter house, the market stall holders, the feed suppliers, the farmshop assistants - eventually that comes back to you. If you carry on shopping with them though, it can come back to you in a positive way.

The alternative to local - or if you just want cheaper food - is importing of course. Other countries can produce food cheaper, and the expense comes from transport costs (why give the money to fuel costs rather than quality food production costs?). And if you're importing the money you spend goes abroad - how's that going to help our economy in the long term?

Also there's a crisis point - like they found with milk. If the price goes too low, and too many farmers leave the industry you've just lost generations of experience. Then if there was ever a supply problem with imports - we'll be regretting that loss of experience and infastructure. Then suddenly the supermarkets jump on the 'local milk' bandwagon, which is similar to the fairtrade style branding. Maybe now is the ideal crisis time for such a branding for the rest of the local producers.

James said...

C - Big Barn also now do Local Foodshop - which delivers locally sourced produce to your door:

Fiona Beckett said...

Loads of excellent points there James, as usual and a persuasively argued case for buying local - particularly that still more farmers will leave the industry.

Not sure what Food from Britain are up to these days, Gerry but they certainly need more clout. Simply putting the tractor logo on packs of supermarket meat won't get the message across.

TonyM said...

I love nothing better than shopping at Farmers' markets and the number of indepndent retailers selling excellent quality food local to me is, if anything, growing. However, the prices are, at times, extraordinary. Particularly at markets, where the producers are cutting out at least one, and possibly many, middlemen the prices do not seem to reflect the fact that margins are not having to be paid to these middlemen. Especially in London I think now that these markets are in many cases ripping the consumer off. This is often more designer food at designer prices than simple healthy produce direct from the prodicer at a fair cost to all parties. Whilst I know this doesn't apply to everybody I certainly think that some producers are making the problem worse for themselves with their pricing.

Slice of life said...

going back to a previous post concerning English and celebrating St Georges day please see below

Career Misfit said...

Wow, this is a huge topic, Fiona. OK, this isn't going to be short, but here we go:

I bought all the food for a Mother's Day lamb roast on Saturday from local shops and was astonished by just how cheap it worked out to be. At first I thought nine pounds for a leg of lamb was quite dear, with another four pounds spent on potatoes, carrots and leeks. But the butcher was great and picked out one that he knew would feed four people and put some nicks in it to make sure it carved up well for me. It came out beautifully, then I worked out the cost of the meal per head and suddenly I was wondering why I don't buy like this more often: just over three quid per person (neglecting energy costs for heating everything up) for a hearty meal and I was able to direct some money into our local economy at the same time.

With this sort of idea in mind, the district council has recently instituted a clever scheme whereby every time you buy something from a local shop you get a sticker, and for every fifteen stickers collected your name is put into a prize draw to win fifty pounds of shopping vouchers. Supermarkets and chain outlets are excluded from the scheme to make sure the money goes the right way but you know, sometimes local producers and suppliers don't do themselves any favours, either. Even with the above sticker idea many shops just don't bother to remind people or forget to mention it themselves when people are buying, despite the opportunity to publicise themselves and make contact with their customers.

Worse still, one of our local restaurants, a smashing place that's not too expensive, sources as many of its ingredients as possible from local farmers and butchers. But I've spoken to the owners and they say that they can't convince any of the local butchers to be their contracted supplier of meat, even though it means guaranteed trade every week. I can't imagine what the thinking behind the refusal is; business-wise it's simply cleavering yourself in the foot. And even more so when the challenge is on: the Co-op was selling large, free-to-roam chickens from naturally-lit sheds on vegetarian diets (a concept which, for some reason, I find quite amusing) for as little as £2.46 this weekend. It might not be free range organic but I reckon most people will see it as the next best thing.

Fiona Beckett said...

I agree with you TonyM, prices are sometimes extraordinary, probably reflecting producers' commercial naivity and/or desperation. They're not selling in volume so they put up prices. Wrong way round. I suppose we ought to be more upfront about it and just tell them it's too much.

Good old Daily Mail, slice of life. You can always rely on them for a good jingoistic story (though I have to confess for a soft spot for Boris!)

And many thanks for your thoughtful contribution, career misfit. You're right about how far food can stretch if you use a bit of imagineation, witness the boiled bacon joint I made for St Patrick's Day which must have made about 16 helpings in all.

Good to hear your local council is tackling the problem. Which one is it?