Urban Growing

Farming on a ‘human scale’: How small and localised supply chains can adapt in a crisis

By Sam Leach

For World Localization Day, Sam Leach from Wilding Orchard in Chew Magna, just outside Bristol, writes our latest blog post. Sam and Beccy Leach aim to farm in a way that is kind to the climate and to nature. One way of re-building a more resilient food system in a post-covid world is to switch to regional-supply networks that allow us to be less reliant on global supply chains.

We have been making cider since 2016, and growing vegetables since 2014, at first doing both alongside running our now-closed Southville restaurant, Birch. We sold the restaurant in summer 2018 to shift the business to growing full-time. In late summer 2019, we moved to Chew Magna, into an orchard that we were previously renting, and are now establishing a new market garden on former pasture. We have seven acres of land on our home farm, and manage a further five acres of old orchards on other people’s land around North Somerset.

We are certified organic on the home farm, and grow using organic and regenerative principles across all of the sites. Our vegetables are grown in ‘no-dig’ beds with lots of diversity across the field. Our principle is to manage the farm ecosystem as a whole, encouraging a good balance of wildlife and to minimise our disease or pest problems by letting the balance of the ecosystem take care of it. For instance, aphid problems are dealt with by birds that nest in trees and hedges around the farm, and by predatory insects whose lifecycle depends on the wild plants in the ‘scruffy’ corners of the farm.

As farmers we think on a ‘human scale’, so our tools are small and simple, and we are mostly able to fix them ourselves. We are operating on a very small scale, so this approach keeps our operating costs to a minimum and ensures we never over-commit ourselves to, for instance, planting large quantities of one crop which then becomes impossible to harvest later in the year. Of course, this can be hard physical work, but it is also immensely satisfying and empowering.

A large proportion of our sales are usually to restaurants – almost all of the vegetables and a significant proportion of the cider, so coronavirus has meant a significant change in how we do business. It has come at a time of scarcity from the vegetable point of view – both coming in the hungry gap, and also at a time when we are setting up a new garden from scratch, so this season was always going to have lower production than usual.

We have found a keen demand for locally grown vegetables, and though we have lost some customers due to closures, others have been ready to take their place, either through direct sales to neighbours and friends, or sales to shops, and to cafés and restaurants who have changed their business models.

The beauty of small and localised supply chains isn’t just that your customers are nearby, they are also flexible. It is interesting to note that large chain restaurants have had to simply shut, while scores of small restaurants have been able to adapt – amazingly quickly in many cases – to these difficult trading conditions and change their business model completely.

Small shops have also adapted to include home delivery or click-and-collect-services, and we have been very encouraged by the continued orders of cider from these shops and it is a good reminder of the resilience and efficiency of small businesses and short supply chains.

The crisis has been a good reminder that it is beneficial to have diversity in sales outlets. Having a variety of ways to sell makes a business so much more resilient. We will try to remember this moving forward, and we are looking at getting a license to do direct sales to local customers, and improving our communications to stockists now that face-to-face meetings and tastings are not possible. The main thing we have missed out on during the COVID-19 crisis is the tasting events, pop-up dinners and cider festivals which were planned for spring and summer.

With the cider business we are very lucky to have a stable product which stores and matures well. This gives us a lot of flexibility when sales slow and removes a lot of the risk associated with sales volatility.

When I look at the way the food industry has reacted to the crisis I have been both impressed and depressed. The way that small businesses have responded to the needs of their customers and the community has been very inspiring. Even those for whom opening in any form has been made impossible have been volunteering with community projects, or starting their own projects. Support for producers has been fantastic and there has been a real sense of solidarity and community, despite the social distance. At the same time, in my view, the Government’s approach has been depressingly pro-supermarket, despite the fact that the supermarket model is so much more fragile and unflexible. Of course, supermarkets are hugely important for the country’s food supply but this has felt like a missed opportunity by the government to boost small businesses and high streets across the country. For example, a more flexible furlough scheme from the very start would have been welcomed by a great many employers (allowing workers to work part-time and be furloughed part-time) would have made it a lot easier for businesses to adapt straight away.

My hope for the future is that we can all learn from this experience and learn to value food and producers more. To remember that when things were turbulent the corner shops and greengrocers, the butchers and farmers, the cafés and veg box schemes were there working around the clock to keep things flowing and keep people fed. Times of turbulence usually precipitate great change, and we are certainly on the brink of great change. Which direction we go in is entirely down to us – how we spend our money, how we vote, how we engage with our community. I hope the opportunity isn’t wasted.

Read the #BristolFoodKind: Support local food highlights on the Going for Gold blog. #BristolFoodKind is a collaboration between Bristol Green Capital PartnershipBristol Food NetworkBristol City Council and Resource Futures.

Visit Bristol Food Network for more information and resources on Bristol’s Good Food response to the pandemic.

Photo credit: Emli Bendixen.

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