One of the most encouraging things about the local food movement in Bristol is the strong networks that have been created across the city. From city-wide groups working to bring about policy-level change, to small collectives of growers working together, these are the people and projects working to produce good food in and around the city.
With agricultural land prices rocketing over the last five years, one of the main challenges for new producers is gaining access to affordable and secure land. A great example of the kind of creative partnerships that happen in the city can be found at Feed Bristol, an Avon Wildlife Trust site that focuses on demonstrating ecological food production practices. Along with the educational side of the project, the site also hosts several growing operations including Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm Sims Hill Shared Harvest, salad producers Edible Futures, and Upcycled Mushrooms. “There’s a lot of challenges facing new start-ups,” Matt Cracknell, project manager at Feed Bristol explains, pointing out the investment needed to get businesses, that are not significant income generators, off the ground. By allowing new businesses to offer in-kind support to the site rather than paying rent for the land, they reduce key overhead costs. One of their growers, Humphrey Lloyd from Edible Futures, describes the value of the arrangement: “Working here, you benefit from a system of shared infrastructure that helps get around the costs that inhibit many new entrant growers. It’s also a social place to work, so you rarely get the lonely field blues often associated with farming.”
What about farmers who don’t want to manage a box or CSA scheme themselves, but would like their produce to reach local customers? The Community Farm near Chew Magna is community owned and has around 350-400 weekly customers, and they also sell wholesale to retailers such as Better Food. As well as growing on their own land, they work with several local growers to provide additional vegetables for their boxes. Their volunteer manager Ian Sumpter explains. “It’s great for the growers we work with because they know what we’re going to buy, so they can plant and plan with confidence at the beginning of the year and know what they’re going to get [in terms of payment]. And in return we get some really wonderful produce and security in the supply.”
Along with the challenges of securing land and reaching markets, producers also face numerous other obstacles such as accessing skills and infrastructure costs. To help address these issues, Bristol Food Producers was set up as a network of farmers, producers, retailers, distributors, restaurants and supporters. “Bristol is a pioneering city with its approach to the environment,” Ped Asgarian, managing director at The Community Farm points out. It was named European Green Capital in 2015. “Bristol Food Producers’ work is playing a major part in developing stronger food systems by providing increased resilience, strengthening networks and upscaling local production,” he continues. Their diverse work includes supporting local growers and producers to run agricultural training courses, covering topics varying from seed saving to social media, holding regular networking events, helping members access new markets and providing a voice for producers at local and national gatherings. Sara Venn, chair of the organisation, describes why this is relevant to cities: “A vibrant local food scene that includes growers and producers helps local economies to thrive, keeping money within that local economy and creating a wealthier and healthier city.”
Supporting local farmers and producers is important, but how do we engage the public in the issues around local food? Bristol Food Connections festival started in 2014 as a week-long food festival, celebrating the best of Bristol food. Over the last three years it’s developed a strong following across the city, and has been a powerful way of connecting people and projects from diverse communities and a variety of businesses across the city. From seasonal feasts to cooking classes with kids, early morning coffee raves to farm tours, the festival has gone from strength to strength across the years.
Director Aine Morris points out; “Public demand for food that is produced locally, in ways that benefit environmental and public health, is essential if the food movement is to break through to the mainstream and make a significant difference to the ways that people shop, cook and eat. Our aim is to celebrate the strength and diversity of food options across the city. Not only celebrating the restaurants and chefs, but also highlighting the community food projects, allotments, cooking initiatives and opportunities for involvement, which continue to exist long after the festival has gone home.”
Launching in 2011 after the publication of the Who Feeds Bristol report that looked into what food is produced, or could be produced, in and around the city, the Bristol Food Policy Council was the first of its kind in the country. The aim was to create a high-level strategic group that could bring together the different elements of the food system with a common objective of achieving a healthier, more sustainable and resilient food system. “The report put a spotlight on the many producers and businesses that put food on our plates, and helped many people to recognise food and farming as a local, as well as a global issue,” council members Joy Carey and Angela Raffle explain. “We carried out a survey of key people, a review of published experience in other nations, and gathered political advice from Bristol City Council. [This] all pointed to the need for a committed group of key stakeholders who, through their influence and networks, could put the food system onto the city’s agenda and keep it there.” Over the last six years, they’ve produced a number of reports and plans such as A Good Food Plan for Bristol in 2013 and a compilation of the evidence that led to Bristol attaining the Sustainable Food Cities silver award in 2016. Bristol is now working towards the gold award.
Amid the multitude of organisations and groups working across the city, a major challenge is making the food sector navigable and coherent to others. It is hoped that the planned launch of the Bristol Good Food Alliance will do just that by making it easier for individuals and organisations to find out what’s going on and work together more effectively.
The future of Bristol food?
It’s clear that there’s a huge amount of positive work being done in Bristol to provide and promote local food, but this is still a small part of the market when compared with the share that that supermarkets have. With concerns around rising food prices post-Brexit, supporting local producers and increasing food production within the surrounding region has never been more important.