The future of community-supported agriculture: Alice Brown of Sutton Community Farm (Part 2)

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Posted Sep 29 2019 by Alice Brown of Sutton Community Farm
Alice Sutton on the future of community-supported agriculture

This is part 2 of a conversation with Alice Brown of Sutton Community Farm. In Part 1 we talked about why CSA farms are such a good idea. This time we talk more about Sutton Community Farm and the future of community-supported agriculture within the food industry.

Do you think there should be more community farms? Do you think that every town could have one, or two, or three?

I think so. From a volunteering perspective, there’s a demand for it. People come to us to volunteer from a long way away. So people want to take part in community farming. From a customer perspective, it’s difficult to access people. But there does seem like there’s a sea-change happening. People are getting more savvy, and people want to buy more locally and more sustainably. So I think there is more scope for community agriculture. It just needs to be done in a financially viable way. There are only so many groups that can be supported with grant funding. So it’s about finding the right model, the right scale, the right location. We really benefit from being on the edge of London, so we’ve got a bigger potential market than if we were next to a smaller town.

Sometimes we get bananas in our bag. How does that work?

About 2 years ago, we reviewed our sourcing policy, and decided to include bananas – the only thing from outside Europe – plus a few items from other European countries. It was a pragmatic decision to provide what our customers want, whilst sticking to our principles. It means that customers can get most of their fruit and veg from us, whereas if we had a stricter sourcing policy, that could become difficult.

Do you have criteria that farms must meet?

All of our external supply is organically certified. That’s the easiest way to check. We’re also working with the Better Food Shed, a recent initiative set up by Growing Communities, to work with farms in the SE, which allows us to link with like-minded farms, and buy from them. That creates a network of farms that we can visit, and that we build relationships with, so we can be confident about how they’re producing.

People say that veg boxes / organic food is more expensive. I’m not sure that’s really true – but also, the people who’ve said that to me spend a lot on fashionable clothes, or alcohol, or overseas holidays etc.

Yes – it’s about how much you value food. The trend is that we’re spending a lower percentage of our income on food, which I don’t think is necessarily a good thing. Also, instead of questioning why organic food is more expensive, it’s better to ask why supermarket food is so cheap. Part of the answer is low wages – their own staff and workers in their supply chains. It’s a system that’s being propped up by the benefits system. Farms like us are paying London living wage, so we have to sell at a slightly higher price. But customers know that they’re supporting a sustainable and fair economy.

And there aren’t tons of plastic and polystyrene packaging. Also, I think our diet has become much healthier since we’ve been with you.

The main thing customers talk about is variety – they get different things every week, depending on what’s in season. It’s easy to buy the same thing every week with supermarket shopping, and just stick to the things you know. We offer things that aren’t usually available in the shops – like rainbow chard. It’s delicious, and we can grow it most of the year.

We’ve been getting baby beetroots recently, and we’ve been roasting them – they’re delicious. So do you know about the Open Food Network? Are you with them?

Yes, I do. We don’t use their software. They offer a software that you can list your products on, and that customers can buy through. We already had our own custom-designed website that allows people to order veg boxes, and manages all the payments, recurring orders etc. We have spoken with them though, and we’re very supportive of what they’re promoting – allowing small producers to have access to more markets, by providing the tech that allows them to do that. I think it’s a really good idea.

Yes. I’m talking with Lynn of the Open Food Network next week. So we also get a meat box from an organic farm in Yorkshire. We don’t eat much meat, so we only get a £50 box every 6 months or so. We also used to get a fish box from a local guy who used to drive down to meet the small family fishing boats. We had a different kind of fish every week. He’s stopped doing it, so we need to find someone else. But we often have meals that are purely from organic farms and food boxes. If people come round for food, we tell them, and let them know that it can be done.

It’s great that it’s possible now. Online retail has made it a lot easier.

How do you see the future of the food industry? Which way is it headed, and what would you like to see happen?

Being optimistic, I think there’s a lot of potential for farms like us, and the others you mentioned, to make it a lot easier to access more local, sustainable and more tasty and nutritious food. Tech makes it much easier. Millennials and generations after that are much more comfortable ordering food online, so it will be second nature to them. Also, a growing awareness of traceablility and where food comes from is becoming more important. I don’t think it’s fair to put all the onus on consumers to know all the issues, and about sourcing etc. I don’t think we can put all that at consumers’ feet, so I do think that we need system change, and for government and food companies to take responsibility. That’s where I’m seeing the gap at the moment. I haven’t seen that much positive in terms of regulation. There’s a bit of a move within companies to become more purpose-driven, but I’d like to see the government switch subsidies and to support better food production – that doesn’t make people or nature sick.

Somebody said to me that it’s a fallacy that organic food tastes better, and that people are just imagining it. Then I spoke with Scarlett at the WWOOF organisation, and she said that it does, because chemical fertilisers are water soluble, so when the plants take in water, they have to take in the fertiliser too, which makes tomatoes (for example) grow to a huge size, and they’re full of water and tasteless. But compost isn’t water soluble, so plants can take exactly what they need, and don’t grow bigger than they want to be and become tasteless.

The other thing that makes a big impact on taste is the length of the food chain. We harvest on Wednesday and deliver on Thursday, so the food is really fresh. We also leave tomatoes on the plant until they’re ripe, whereas if tomatoes are grown in Spain, and they have to be transported to the UK on a truck for 3 days, then put on a supermarket shelf until they’re bought and taken home, they’re picked before they’re ripe, or by the time they get to you, they’ll be rotten. We can harvest food when it’s meant to be eaten. It’s much better quality. Some of the restaurants that buy from us don’t do so because of the community aspects, but because of the quality of the food and the taste.

Do those restaurants advertise the fact that the food is local and sustainable?

Some do, but the real driver is quality.

Actually, we don’t get ours on a Thursday, we get ours early Friday morning – it’s a scandal!

Ah, you might have to move closer to the farm for a Thursday delivery.

I wonder if community farms can dovetail with what we’re doing with the Open Credit Network – mutual credit – community money, as well as community food. We’d like to invite you to register.

Yes, we definitely will. It depends on the businesses involved, but there are a few ways that we could be involved – by offering fruit and veg, or we offer services – we do corporate volunteering days, for example. We could find things that we need in the directory.

At some point, businesses could pay wages in mutual credit, which employees could use to buy other things, maybe on the business account.

Veg boxes!

Of course. And you very kindly agreed to be our specialist advisor for our veg growing and veg boxes topics – thank you very much. And I need to put you into the Lowimpact directory. Anything else?

Just if people are interested in local, sustainable food, do search for local providers online – see the CSA Network, the Open Food Network or Lowimpact, or just search online with the name of your town.

Cheers Alice – and thanks for all the fruit & veg.

Highlights

  1. People are getting more savvy, and people want to buy more locally and more sustainably. So I think there is more scope for community agriculture.
  2. Instead of questioning why organic food is more expensive, it’s better to ask why supermarket food is so cheap.
  3. We leave tomatoes on the plant until they’re ripe, whereas if tomates are grown in Spain, and they have to be transported to the UK on a truck for 3 days, then put on a supermarket shelf until they’re bought and taken home, they’re picked before they’re ripe, or by the time they get to you, they’ll be rotten.