Getting your produce onto the plate of the end consumer is one of the key challenges for local food producers, who often face obstacles in the form of unpredictable orders and time consuming packaging and deliveries. One of the strengths of the food scene in Bristol is the variety of different routes available to producers; from innovative direct to customer models to businesses with a firm commitment to sourcing locally, Bristol is a city that is working hard to get its local food to the customer.
Direct to customer
Selling directly to customers seems like an obvious choice; but while you may maximise your income, what challenges does it bring with it? Sims Hill Shared Harvest, a 7-acre farm operating within the city limits, have adopted a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) model. They drop off produce to several collection points and sheds around the city where members weigh out their own items, cutting down on packaging time and delivery costs. The other advantage of a CSA is that it involves the customers in the farm, inspiring loyalty and building community, as pointed out by Sims Hill farm manager Miriam Schoen; “We aren’t just producing local food, [we’re] building an organisation where the members feel responsible and connect to the piece of land where the food comes from.”
Stream Farm based near Bridgwater in Somerset delivers directly to customers in the extensive area surrounding their 250-acre farm, including weekly deliveries up to Bristol. The farm works on a share farming model, with all its products sold under a single common brand. Owner James Ogden comments that it’s based on “small businesses all helping each other out”. Their direct to customer model means they receive the maximum income for their produce but share the practical costs, supporting their central aim of helping people to earn a viable livelihood from farming.
Restaurants face many challenges in their sourcing; chefs often demand high quality and consistency in their produce and struggle to plan far enough ahead to work with small-scale producers. Why would a restaurant choose to go that extra mile when it comes to local produce, and how can they form direct relationships with local producers? Birch, in Southville, grow around half of their vegetables themselves on a smallholding in Whitchurch, with most of the rest of their produce sourced directly from local farms, including sides of pork from Mary Holbrook at Sleight Farm, that they butcher themselves. Owner and chef Sam Leach describes why sourcing locally is important to them; “We have to think about re-localising the food system. It’s a huge challenge but all you can do is pick your thing and do it well. We try to grow as much as we can in our plot, and then support other people who are doing things we think are good.” Poco on Stokes Croft have been sourcing local, seasonal food since the restaurant opened in 2011. Over 90% of their produce is British and a majority is sourced within 50 miles. Among their producers is Patrick Mallery from Upcycled Mushrooms, who grows oyster and lion’s mane mushrooms just a few miles from the restaurant. “I sell to restaurants because I have to ask a certain price for them because of the work involved,” he points out. “It’s tough to get people to realise what it takes to have local food, and understand the difference between industrially grown mushrooms and ecologically or sustainably grown mushrooms.”
Bristol has a number of independent retail outlets who work hard to build relationships with local farmers and producers; from the three outlets of Better Food to small local stores in neighbourhoods across the city such as Matter Wholefoods in Easton and Southville Deli on North Street. “We are a link between the producer and the customer,” Joe Wheatcroft from the city centre food hall Source explains. “Local food is really good because it cuts down on food miles, there’s less pollution in transportation; it creates jobs in our community and keeps the money in our local economy.” At Source, they buy their meat directly from local farms, buying whole animals where possible and butchering in store for retail sales and for the kitchen in their cafe. They also buy a lot of their cheese directly from local farms, including Homewood Cheeses, who make a range of sheep milk cheeses in the Mendips including halloumi and a soft ewe’s curd. What are the advantages for the producer? Owner Angela Morris describes why they sell their cheese through retailers such as Source; “We deliver every week and through conversation get valuable feedback on what’s going well or otherwise. Bristol is our closest market and selling locally creates an important link between us and consumers: the consumer gets to know where their food is coming from and we know who our customers are.”
Another growing form of retail is the online option offered by fresh-range, Somerset Local Food Direct, Farmdrop and the Real Economy. Offering online ordering for items sourced from local producers and the convenience of delivery to your door (or a local collection point in the case of the Real Economy). Through their partnership with Bath and North-East Somerset Council, fresh-range are also helping producers access new markets such as supplying schools. “We support producers [entering] into multiple sales channels including retail, private catering and public sector,” director Rich Osborn explains. “We are trying to make it as flexible as possible. There’s no tie-in contract and they can choose how they would like to fulfil their orders: small or big volume ceilings, choice of days, with or without own delivery capability…”
Farmers’ Markets and Food Assemblies
Amidst the multitude of possible routes to consumers, is there still a need for the traditional farmers’ markets in the city, such as Corn Street, Whiteladies Road and the Tobacco Factory? A new arrival on the scene is the BS5 Market, held monthly in St Georges Park. The organisers Holly and Rachel think there’s still a role for markets to play: “We’ve found that for many people considering starting their own business, the first opportunity they have to trial their business is in a market. It’s where you can go to make yourself known locally, share your story and gain feedback first-hand.”
A slightly different model is the Food Assembly, where people place an online order and then collect from a market-style set up each week. Purple Patch is growing on a quarter acre plot in St Werburghs in the east of the city. When asked why they chose the Easton Food Assembly as their first route to market, grower Tommy explains; “We’re able to deliver our goods to the local Food Assembly in Easton, around a mile away, so it’s in the hands of the consumer within hours of harvesting. As relatively new entrants into farming, we benefit from access to a consumer base and being able to meet the people buying our produce face to face.”
The producers and routes to market are a central part of the food movement in the city. But what makes Bristol stand out from other cities is the strong network that holds it all together.
This is the second article in a series of three on Eating Local in Bristol. The third article in this series will look at the connections and organisations who support and encourage the production and consumption of local