Category Archives: producers

Are city start-ups a help or hindrance to local food?

I am pleased to share with you my latest article, re-published with kind permission from Sustainable Food Trust, the global voice for sustainable food and health. I added images. 

Are city start-ups a help or hindrance to local food?

In the last few decades, there has been a quiet revolution in food as more farmers have increasingly sold their produce direct to the public. By circumventing the supermarket system, farmers are strengthening local food systems, rebuilding connections between people and the source of their food.

This direct sales home delivery model has long been the domain of the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) movement. However, thanks mainly to online technology, this revolution is ratcheting up a notch with the arrival of a raft of new companies backed by city finance.

HelloFresh, founded in 2011 and now active in seven countries, was valued at around £2 billion in 2015; Gousto, founded in 2012 and backed by Unilever, recently drew an additional £28.5 million from backers; and Farmdrop, founded in 2012, attracted £7 million from investors in 2017 including Skype co-founder, Niklas Zennström.

The question that arises, is whether these new models enhance or weaken sustainable local food systems? On one hand, the idea of encouraging people to cook – from ‘scratch’ using recipe boxes for a fantastic array of meals, with exact ingredients and directions provided – is to be celebrated. On the other hand, could this very choice seduce the public away from supporting their local farmer?

Small-scale farmers are the foundation of a sustainable food system. Organic, biodynamic and other sustainable agriculture systems regenerate soil, support wildlife and produce a variety of fresh local food which increases local and national food security. Selling direct enables farmers to keep their small-scale values – and their profits. By buying directly from a farmer, a food citizen is supporting economic and environmental sustainability.

Entwined organic carrots with a label saying: I carrot leave without you!

Pioneered by small-scale organic farmers in the 1980s, the CSA model of direct sales and home delivery by-passes the supermarket system and its pulverising demand for industrial uniformity. The humble veg box has been crucial in establishing a direct connection between shopper and farmer – as well as reducing plastic waste and fuel miles.

The CSA reinforces this bond. Members support the farmer come rain or shine (literally) by paying up front for their share of the harvest. It is not a one-way relationship. A CSA member gets fresh local produce, knows exactly where their food comes from, and has opportunities to volunteer or socialise at the farm.

Adapt to survive

Wheelbarrow in foreground, members of the Community Farm working on the land, background

The idea that well-endowed home delivery companies could threaten CSAs is nothing new, according to Maresa Bossano of CSA UK Network.

“Small organic veg box schemes in the UK went through the same thing quite a few years ago when [box schemes] from Abel and Cole and Riverford first came on the scene, mainly because they offered customers more choice and better customer service; in many cases, smaller box schemes couldn’t compete and closed down. Others expanded and changed the way they operated by also providing imported fruit and giving customers the option to choose which produce, not just a set box, like some community-run schemes such as the Community Farm (pictured above).

Biodynamic farmer, Marina O’Connell, of Huxhams Cross Farm. Image: Biodynamic Land Trust

Marina O’Connell (pictured above) who grows and sells produce at 34-acre Huxhams Cross Farm, two miles down the road from big box company Riverford Organic Farmers, has also adapted their CSA offering.

“We offer a regular veg bag home delivery to customers in a 30-mile radius. We do top-up the fruit bag with produce, particularly citrus in the winter. We find that people choose to come to Huxhams Cross Farm because it is small, local, and our produce is really fresh. People come, look around the farm and meet the farmers. And, as a biodynamic farm, this makes a difference to those who want it.”

Marina O’Connell sees the so-called competition as positive: “I think all organic farms – big or small – are good. They all build the market for organic produce, and the more offers there are, the more people will take them up. I think that, as a whole, the large organisations have done a great service for the organic movement.”

National organic box schemes

It could, certainly, be argued that big national schemes encourage sustainable food production. Abel & Cole, founded in 1987 and now owned by William Jackson Food Group, may be a middleman but it sources 95% of its fruit and veg direct from organic growers.

Riverford Organic Farmers, also founded in 1987, has similarly created outlets for organic produce. A family business growing 30% of its produce in Devon, it works with a farmer-owned cooperative of 16 small-to-medium organic farms. From June 2018, Riverford will operate as an employee-owned business, with its founder, Guy Watson retaining only 26% of it.

Organic farmer and campaigner, Guy is aware of the risk posed by Riverford’s wide offerings such as organic Spanish broad beans in spring. “We offer 70% of UK produce round the year but perhaps we should put more pressure on ourselves to offer a more edited content. I would love to sell only UK organic produce. But the mood is towards specifying what is in the box with a bespoke order.”

Millennial-driven

Technology is the driver in this current phase of online food offerings. It is, for instance, creating new ways of selling local food with initiatives such as the not-for-profit Open Food Network, an open source online food distribution system, and The Food Assembly, a cross between a buyer’s group and a farmers’ market.

At the driving wheel are tech-savvy millennials: “We’ve certainly seen all our fresh organic produce grow,” Adam Wakeley of Organic Farm Foods told the Smallholder. “One reason is down to an evolving consumer profile – millennials are now our biggest customer group, and they show a huge interest in food provenance and health. They understand that having food grown in an environmentally friendly way is a good thing. We believe their attitude is here to stay and will continue to drive growth in the future.”

Transparency and fair pay for farmers

Let’s hope the start-ups are listening to the millennials because HelloFresh has a disturbing lack of information on its website. “Our veggie box is bursting with tasty new ingredients and adventurous recipes that will make your taste buds sing.” This slogan makes no reference to provenance or seasonality and tells you nothing about where the produce comes from or how it is produced. Perhaps the real risk to sustainable food is the lack of transparency with marketing messages which may not live up to their promise?

In the online advert bidding wars, HelloFresh and Gousto are positioning themselves as alternatives to the established organic box schemes, Abel & Cole and Riverford. However, apart from featuring Yeo Valley Organic yogurt, I could see no other reference to organic produce on Gousto’s website.

I contacted Gousto, Hello Fresh and Farmdrop about their sourcing policies but only Farmdrop replied. Billed as the ‘ethical grocer’, with hubs in London, Bristol and Bath, there is a lot to like about Farmdrop: its search boxes for organic and pesticide-free; its mobile app (instead of a weekly subscription) which links farmers and customers; and its stated mission to “fix the broken food system”.

Farmdrop van and van driver with lettering: The food we are delivering came from a local farm this morning. Fresher food for you, a better deal for them."

Farmdrop also believes in a fair price to farmers. Its policy is to pay local suppliers “at least 70% of the final retail price. The exact amount will vary depending on the producer. Milk suppliers for example usually take a higher margin of around 75%,” says a spokesperson for Farmdrop. According to its website, farmers would be lucky to receive 50% from supermarkets.

A fair price could be the ballast for these city-financed companies, ensuring their financial growth is not at the expense of small-scale organic growers. “There is definitely interest in different ways of buying food, and we expect this trend to grow – online shopping, for example, could make up a quarter of all UK sales of organic products in the next five years,” says Soil Association, head of horticulture, Ben Raskin. “We welcome new models of delivery services – if they do things properly. There is potential for this to bolster the market, but the key is farmers and producers being paid a fair price.”

According to the Soil Association Organic Market Report 2018, alternative models of shopping for organic food are expanding: online shopping sales grew by 9.7% and home delivery (i.e. box schemes and recipe boxes) grew by 9.5%.

CSAs do not need to lose out, if cooperation can be encouraged: ”It would be good to see some of the platforms develop a section for CSAs, perhaps working with the CSA Network UK to help develop this,” says Ben.

CSAs build relationships

Community-supported Bennison Farm. Image: CSA Network UK

Although CSAs may not be able to compete on choice, they continue to flourish, with over 100 CSA farms listed on CSA Network UK and over 15 new ones in 2015-17.

“The new online marketplaces may take business away from some box schemes but,” says Maresa Bossano, “they generally appeal to busy working people who aren’t so confident with cooking. Whereas generally CSA members love cooking and experimenting with vegetables, and to be a member of a CSA, they have enough time to participate in some way.”

As well as appealing to these different kinds of shoppers, the CSA subscription model also protects the farmer, as Danny Steele of Bennison Farm (pictured above. Image: Bennison Farm) in Thorrington near Colchester explains:

“We pack around 115 veg shares per week with produce harvested the same day. The difference for me, is that our members can only get a regular share of our harvest by subscribing; I think I feel less threatened by the big box schemes precisely because we are a CSA.”

Good food needs land

I love working with the Biodynamic Land Trust. Then the dream thing happened and I went to Brussels for a few days for work. I am grateful to the Access to Land EU conference organisers for supporting my travel.

[Brexit rant: It took two hours by train from Kings Cross, London to Brussels – of course, am in Europe. I apologise for Brexit. In a loo in Brussels, graffiti proclaimed “I voted Remain” to which several had added, “me too” including me (always have felt tip for such occasions).]

Back to the conference: it was held during June heatwave in the peaceful and collegiate setting of the Franciscan centre, Notre Dame Chant d’Oiseau.


We held some of the workshop sessions outside under the comforting shade of a beautiful tree.


If you care about real food, you have to care about the land. 

But land is not valued as a place to grow food. Land is seen as an investment – a place to lock in-money. The EU subsidy system distorts the market further, favouring rich landowners over small ecological farmers delivering healthy local food, and protection of soil and wildlife. (The EU is not perfect. Obvs. It needs reform.).

Brexit is a messy, expensive pain but it is also an opportunity to reshape UK farming, and many organisations are seizing the day.

26 June 2017: Brexit negotiations began, and 80 food and farming organisations released their food policy plan for agriculture, A People’s Food Policy.


The Biodynamic Land Trust was one of the 80 organisations supporting the People’s Food Policy.

The Biodynamic Land Trust’s current community share offer is for Huxhams Cross Farm in Dartington, south Devon (near Totnes). Below, is a picture of the farm’s magical wooded area where local children come to learn about land and farming, and be outdoors in nature. They love it.


I invite you to look at the Huxhams Cross Farm community share offer and hope you will be inspired to support this grassroots investment in community-owned farms for our sustainable future.

Kefir – the details that count

Jar of kefir milk with pretty floral cloth cover

This is my third attempt at making kefir. Worth the effort because although the shop-bought organic one is delectable (especially Riazhenka baked milk) I am less enamoured of its plastic container and price. (And availability since it was featured on BBC’s Trust Me, I’m A Doctor and everyone went mad for kefir).

Enter a blog post on kefir by Penny’s Plate, a Bristol-based nutrionist. My third kefir adventure had begun.

Penny kindly offered me some kefir grains, and dropped them off at our local healthy food shop.

A jar of kefir with floral cloth cover
It gets better. When I picked up the grains at Harvest Bristol Cooperative, I was delighted to find them in a jar with a darling fabric cover (see pic above) secured with an elastic band (the metal lid was while it was being transported).

This has made everything possible. I have hitherto never achieved such a natty arrangement.

The other good thing was the size of the jar. Up-to-now, I had made a pint  and got overwhelmed by the amount.

If you don’t like the tangy taste of kefir, add it to a banana smoothie.

Why kefir? This fermented food certainly feels soothing. Apparently it helps line the gut – and a healthy gut lining enables the absorption of nutrients. According to kefir enthusiasts, it is better than yogurt because its healthy probiotic bacteria actually colonise the gut.

Kefir milk in a jar and plastic strainer over a second and clean jar. Cover and elastic band beside on kitchen worktop

Newbie kefir tips 

Find someone making kefir and beg them for grains. When they arrive, put in a clean jar and top with fresh milk. Don’t fill to the top. Cover with a breathable lid and leave to ferment for 24 hours away from direct sunlight.

milk kefir grains in plastic tea strainer

Strain through a plastic (not metal) sieve and drink (or store in the fridge). Start again with the strained kefir, a clean jar and fresh milk. Store unused kefir grains in the fridge covered in a little milk. The cold slows down activity.

It is good to have a kefir buddy. Tasting Penny’s kefir gave me an idea what I was aiming for. I asked questions, was reassured by her replies. I felt like a new breastfeeding mother unsure of this natural yet unknown activity.

Start small with less than half a pint of milk in a jar. Don’t fill it to the top but leave room in the jar for kefir to breathe.

Get a fabric lid cover cut in a circle to fit generously over a jar with an elastic band to secure it. The cover needs to be breathable and clean. You could use a paper towel. Don’t forget the runner band.

Successful kefir is down to the freshness and quality of the original ingredients – so choose organic milk if you can, and as fresh as possible.

As for all great achievements, you have to get a bit obsessed. You have to fuss over your kefir, check it, swirl it, send anxious texts to your kefir buddy, look up kefir sites (one of my favourites), and hurry back home to check it is not feeling abandoned.
From above inside of kefir milk jar

Kefir grains are not really grains. These grain lookalikes are actually clumps of good bacteria and yeast formed from feeding on the milk. And when recipes say “refresh” the grains, it means give them fresh milk (not water as I have mistakenly done!). 

A large jar of translucent ginger beer

Jane of World Jungle’s ginger kefir

You can make vegan kefir. Like kefir ginger beer. This is how ginger beer used to be made. The real thing.

Use room temperature milk. I had what the French call a mauvais quart d’heure when I thought I had murdered my grains with icy milk. I think they just slowed down. They seem to be recovering nicely now. Thank you for asking.

Young man with three cows

Kees Frederiks owner and farmer of Stroud Micro Dairy, Stroud News and Journal

The lucky people of Stroud can now get kefir made from raw milk. Check out the Stroud Micro Dairy which is situated on Oakbrook Farm, farmland secured by the Biodynamic Land Trust so it will be sustainable farmland for generations to come.

PS I am now communications manager for the Biodynamic Land Trust.

Do you make kefir? Any newbie tips?

Growing farms in the UK

Wicker basket with freshly picked produce on the ground

The day after my mother’s funeral (glitter and gold in her honour), I got my dream job, as marketing and communications manager for the Biodynamic Land Trust, a charitable community benefit society.

The Biodynamic Land Trust grows farms. Founded in 2011, it secures biodynamic and organic farmland for community-ownership, 300 acres so far.

I am excited to be with an organisation working at the grassroots. The grassroots is where it’s at.

How does a community get to own a farm? Through buying community shares.

With interest at an all-time low, many investors are thinking ‘outside the bank’. By investing  in (withdrawable) community shares in an ethical enterprise, money can do good. 

Three freshly-laid eggs in a child's hand at Huxhams Cross Farm

Take Huxhams Cross Farm in Devon. Secured by the Biodynamic Land Trust in 2015, it is achieving great things thanks to community investment. The farm is in conversion to biodynamic agriculture. Its previously-bare fields are regaining fertility through green manures and soil-nurturing biodynamic preparations. 

The fledgling farm has planted 900 orchard trees, two acres of soft fruit, and 3,500 agro-forestry trees. It has a hundred chickens and two Shetland heifers.

Run by food-growing and wellbeing experts, the Apricot Centre, it has also raised a new barn, developed access to parking and organises a weekly box delivery with fellow local farmers, offering vegetables, fruit, eggs, and spring water from Dartmoor.

Signpost at Huxhams Cross Farm

The farm needs electricity and to harvest water, and to build a training and wellbeing centre. The centre will enable cooking, on-farm processing, and on-farm therapy for children (being on a farm is incredibly de-stressing for kids and increases the therapeutic offering). 

Are you inspired to help Huxhams Cross Farm? Invest now in Huxhams Cross Farm community share offer.

Children helping with harvest at Huxhams Cross Farm

POST SCRIPT

I made marmalade on Sunday.

Preserving pan with warm marmalade

I was about to compost the pith and pips when Michael said: whoa, and now its citrusy-ness fibre goes in every smoothie.  By the way, if you can get organic Seville oranges, do. More orangey.

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For several years I have kept my mother, Fay Winkler, in marmalade.

She was my marmalade’s biggest fan.

Her testimony is below.

 

Real food lover, Fay Winkler 

Grandmother and granddaughter shelling peas at kitchen table, both focused on task

My mother, Fay Winkler, died on the 11 January 2017.  My mother is the original real food lover, who inspires her family with a love of cooking and an ancestral knowledge about what makes real food.

I have often referenced my mother on this blog. And I am not going to stop now. For instance, we have inherited a huge file of recipes including traditional Jewish dishes made by my grandmother. I can’t believe I have not yet posted about Fay’s chicken soup. 

Fay’s pavlova
Fay’s home made mayonnaise
My grandmother’s beetroot soup
Fay’s fish soup with fennel

In my 2010 blog on Fay’s fish soup made with wild sea bass, she talks about her fishmonger, Pat, in Tachbrook Street market, London: “If he packs up, I’ll pack up” she says.

Fay and Pat the fishmonger go back a long way. Here they are in the 1980s.

Fay Winkler shopping from Pat Wright fishmonger Tachbrook Street Market London SW1 in the 1980s

 

 

 

Fay believes, “good food begins with good ingredients”.

“You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear,” she says.

You have to buy the best – be it organic, free-range, fresh, seasonal, local and/or artisan – to make a good meal, she says.

If the ingredients are good, no need for complicated recipes (as her mother said before her).

Ingredients, ingredients, ingredients. The only three words you need to know when it comes to cooking.

My beautiful mother aged 93

I love you, Fay.

 

Animal welfare: fox in charge of henhouse

Is there anyone – apart from a fox – who thinks this is a good idea?

From 27 April 2016, the poultry industry itself will be in charge of writing and upholding its own welfare codes, says the Metro. 

And that is just the start.

“Conservative ministers are planning to repeal an array of official guidance on animal welfare standards,” says the Guardian, whose Freedom of Information request helped reveal the government’s plan to deregulate animal welfare. 

Deregulation is a terrible backward step for a better world.

Campaigners for animal welfare and safe food systems have fought long and hard for regulations, and the battle is by no means over.

Regulations need to be strengthened further – not weakened, in this blatant move to please Big Farma. (Or perhaps it is the current government showing how it can get rid of regulations quite easily without having to leave Europe).

Conservative types (whether anti-Europe or pro-Europe) like to portray legislation as tedious red tape that stifles the entrepreneurial spirit of business.

Poppycock! 

We need legislation and regulations because (sadly) humans with power and vested interests cannot be trusted.

The Metro poll asks its readers to vote yes or no to: 

“Should the meat industry regulate itself?”

What do you think?

PS So far, 97% voted “No, the system could be abused”. 

PPS I stole my title from the New Economic Foundation blog on poultry deregulation by Stephen Devlin. Read his excellent co-written piece on so-called “better regulation”, in whose name “a large and unaccountable bureaucracy has been created to…mak(e) it more difficult for government departments to pass laws which impose costs on businesses.”

PPPS  Sign the Change.org petition to stop the repeal of animal welfare codes.

Stop press

Campaigning works! It looks as if this controversial deregulation will not go ahead. According to the BBC:

“The government has abandoned a controversial plan to repeal animal welfare codes.
The plan would have put standards into the hands of the livestock industry.”

However, the “price of freedom is eternal vigilance.”

So, remain vigilant.

 

 

 

 

 

Beetroot and Carrot Salad

Beetroot and carrot salad

I used to think beetroots had to be cooked. Now I am wiser, I know they can be  raw. And may be more nutritious as a result.

Grating beetroots makes crunching effortless while an oil and vinegar dressing adds luxury. Carrots, also grated, are a perfect companion.

You know what they say: eat for colour: orange, reds (and more), each colour containing different immune-boosting nutrients.

I first came across the beetroot/carrot combo at the Better Food Cafe about seven years ago, and copied the idea, working out a version at home. 

IMG_9406

Then turned it into a recipe for Grown in Britain CookbookI wish I had name-checked my inspiration so glad to be doing so now. My beetroots came from  the Better Food Company, too.

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I peeled the carrots and beetroots, above. Grown organically, slowly, biologically, they are chemical-free and needed only scrubbing, plus the skin has nutrients. (But I am not perfect and peeling is faster).

I was taken with the yellow, white and purple carrots, as they used to be before 17th century Dutch growers went monoculture orange to praise William of Orange. Poetically, these 21st century rainbow carrots were grown in Holland.

Bear Fruit Bear Pit
I had bought my Dutch rainbow organic carrots at the Bear Fruit stall (above) in the Bear Pit, Bristol.

The Bear Pit is, by the way, an example of urban regeneration from the grass-roots-up. A dingy subway on a busy city roundabout now transformed by locals into a lively market and meeting place.

Beetroot and Carrot Salad – ingredients for four

  • 600g raw beetroot
  • 600g raw carrots
  • 50g sunflower seeds
  • Dressing: 4 tablespoon olive oil + 50ml balsamic vinegar
  • oil for frying/toasting + soy sauce for seeds
  • Salt and black pepper, to taste
  • Fresh herbs (parsley, coriander) or snipped salad cress.
  • 1.1. Scrub/peel carrots and beetroot, and trim tops and tails. Keep carrots whole for grating. Peel the beetroot and cut in half. Grate the raw vegetables, using hand grater or food processor. Combine in large bowl and add olive oil and vinegar dressing.2. If not serving immediately, don’t add dressing yet. Instead, store covered in fridge. Remove 1 hour before serving to bring to room temperature. Then add dressing (below).

    3. For the vinaigrette, put the oil and vinegar in a screw-top jar, put the lid on tightly and shake vigorously.

    4. Gently heat olive oil in a small frying pan and toast the seeds for 3–4 minutes over a moderate heat, stirring to prevent sticking. Add the soy sauce at the end of the cooking, if using. Most of the sauce will evaporate, leaving a salty taste and extra browning for the seeds. Store the toasted seeds in a jar with a lid if preparing the day before.

    5. When ready to serve, add the chopped herbs to the grated beetroot and carrot. Shake the screw-top jar with vinaigrette, then pour over the vegetables, and season to taste. Toss the salad gently until everything glistens. Scatter the toasted seeds.