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Chapter 6 of "Short Circuit" - page 3

In any case, it would certainly be very difficult to use fewer external inputs if one intended to sell the produce through the conventional food distribution system. This is because of the grading standards imposed by the British supermarket chains which, by the end of 1994, had grown so large that they were handling just over half of all fresh fruit and vegetables consumed in the country. As this figure had grown from 24% in only a decade, it was expected to reach 70% by the end of the century41. In order to meet these standards, growers were compelled to use fertilisers and sprays to achieve the highly-uniform, cosmetically-perfect fruit and vegetables the chains claim their customers demand. Despite this, large quantities of slightly blemished or mis-shapen produce had to be dumped - one estimate is that half of all organic fruit and vegetables and a fifth of all conventional produce is rejected on appearance grounds alone42. Moreover, the range of varieties supermarkets will accept is very limited and those they specify have therefore to be grown on large scale creating pest and disease problems. Of the 2,000 varieties of English apple, only nine are widely sold.

Rural refineries required to replace oil-based chemicals (Click for panel from original book)

Another problem posed by the supermarkets for growers is the huge quantities required for each chain's dozens of stores and their unwillingness to assemble these quantities by buying from several different suppliers: most chains will only deal with companies able to deliver to all their stores from a number of regional depots. Crop consolidators such as the East Kent Packers' co-operative which outgrew its name and now grades and packs produce from growers all over southern England, have been established by growers in order to meet the chains' requirements but, nevertheless, orchards have been grubbed up and market gardens closed down throughout the country. It was usually smaller growers serving local shops who gave up the struggle. This was because three-quarters of the independent retailers with whom they dealt closed down between 1978 and 1993 as the supermarkets took their business.

Increasingly, the supermarkets have turned to imports to meet their needs and French apples - mainly the tasteless Golden Delicious - have 35% of the British market while British apples have only 25%. In September 1994, although abundant home-grown supplies of apples, onions, carrots and green beans were available throughout Britain, Hugh Raven, the co-ordinator of the Sustainable Agriculture, Food and Environment (SAFE) Alliance, a coalition of groups working to research and promote sustainable agriculture found apples transported 4,700 miles from the United States, onions brought 12,000 miles from New Zealand, carrots 5,100 miles from South Africa and green beans 3,600 miles from Kenya on sale in three central London supermarkets. As he told Charles Clover, the environmental correspondent of The Daily Telegraph: "It is madness to fly food halfway round the world - like the American raspberries on sale here at the height of our raspberry season - when British growers are going out of business."45

The overall effect of the replacement of locally-owned bakers, greengrocers, butchers and provision merchants by retailing chains has been to push up the distance that food has to travel. Raven, whose estimate that it now travels half as far again as it did in the late 1970s I quoted earlier, calculates that this increase was responsible for one-third of the rise in the total amount of freight carried on British roads. Crazy centralisations contributed to this. Boots, for example, buys all the sandwiches sold in its stores from a company near Derby and delivers them in vans overnight while all dairy produce sold by Safeway pass through a single distribution depot in Warwickshire, regardless of where they were imported or made.

But these distribution networks, along with the packing houses and the advertising and marketing activities which necessarily accompany them are, in fact, the supermarkets' Achilles heel because they are costly to run. Indeed, as the chains have developed over the years, a larger and larger proportion of the price the consumer pays has had to be used to cover the operating costs of the distribution system itself rather than paying farmers and growers for their output. For example, between 1982 and 1992, food prices to consumers rose by 52% but the prices paid to growers by supermarkets increased by only 18%46.

It is not just in Britain that increasingly powerful processing and distribution sectors have taked advantage of farmers and growers. In 1973, when there were 35,700 family farms producing pigs in Ireland, bacon factories were dotted all over the country and of the price the shopper paid for a pork or bacon product, half, on average, went back to the farm 47. By 1996, however, there were less than 700 pig farmers although the total number of pigs reared in the country had more than doubled. And, thanks to government policy, there were only six bacon factories of any size, three of which were controlled by one company, Avonmore. As a result, just over a fifth of the price of a pack of bacon was getting back to what had now become a factory farm rather than a family one. In the United States between 1980 and 1987, the amount the farmer received for his contribution to a box of cornflakes fell by a third while the price of the box to the consumer went up by the same proportion 48. In the Federal Republic of Germany in the 1950s, threequarters of all spending on food went back to the farm. Thirty years later, the proportion had dropped to a fifth 49. In Denmark in 1991, 56% of the pre-tax price of a bag of flour was absorbed by packaging, transport and sale through the shop, 25% went to the farmer and 13% to the miller50.Click for 2002 update

The message is clear. Organic and other low-input producers need to short out the supermarkets and sell to the public either directly or, avoiding wholesalers, through a local shop. Either course would enable them to gain a larger part of the amount the customer pays for their goods while at the same time disposing of produce that, though safer and more flavourful than that grown with chemicals, the supermarkets would have required them to leave in the field.

COMMUNITY AGRICULTURE

Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) is an approach which such producers should consider because it is not only a powerful method of direct selling but much more besides, as we will see shortly. It was born in Germany and Switzerland in the 1970s, became popular movement in North America in the early 1990s and has now spread back across the Atlantic to Britain and Ireland. Robyn Van En became one of those who introduced it to the United States almost by accident. In 1983, she had just moved to Great Barrington in Massachusetts with her six-year-old son planning to continue her training as a kindergarten teacher. "I was looking for a house on about five acres" she told me in the sitting room at Indian Line Farm, her home about three miles outside the town, "but this was the cheapest property available".

When she got it, the 90-acre former dairy farm had been out of production for two years since the Willcoxes, who had farmed it since the late 1940s, had sold out to a speculative builder who wanted to build luxury houses on its thirty-acre upper pasture to take advantage of the splendid view. The Willcoxes had felt fortunate to get a buyer for the property at all. Dairying in the State was in rapid decline because it had become so cheap to truck milk 1,500 miles from Wisconsin that two thirds of the milk consumed in a state which had supplied a large part of New York City's requirements by rail in the 1930s was coming in from outside. Half of Massachusetts' milk producers went out of business between 1980 and 1993, 7% quitting in 1988 alone. In many cases, their land went unsold and is now reverting to forest while their houses are either occupied as holiday homes for a few weeks a year or collapsing from neglect and decay.

Van En bought the sixty-acre rump of the property from the builder and farmed a small part of it organically for two years, selling most of what she grew to a group of local families which had come together to buy their food staples collectively. This eliminated her marketing problems but left her finding all the working capital, carrying all the risk and doing all the work. "I knew that there had to be a better way to farm" she says, "something co-operative, that allowed people to combine their abilities, expertise and resources for their mutual benefit while at the same time bringing the people who grew the food closer to those who ate it."51

In the middle of her second growing season in 1984 Jan Vandertuin, who had worked on several organic and conventional farms, returned to the US from Switzerland and was taken out to Indian Line by a mutual friend.

Robyn van En and Hugh Radcliffe bringing in the harvest at Indian Line Farm. (photo: Clemens Kalisher)
While he had been away, Vandertuin had helped set up Topinambur near Zurich, a collective producing vegetables for about 125 member-families and milk for even more. It had been modelled on two similar Swiss projects, Les Jardins de Cocagne near Geneva which employed three full-time gardeners to supply organic vegetables every week to about 550 people, and Agrico near Basel, which had four people plus a part-timer producing eggs, milk, vegetables and grain for over 150 families. "After talking for only a few minutes, Jan and I knew what we should do at Indian Line Farm" Van En says.

Because neither of them felt that they had sufficient horticultural experience to start on their own, it took over a year to put their plan into action. However, Van En prepared the way by getting thirty families to combine to harvest 360 bushels of apples from an old orchard where they would otherwise have been left to rot. They turned most of the fruit into apple juice, vinegar and cider, each family paying $90 in advance to cover the costs. The following year, though, the missing component arrived when they were approached by Hugh Radcliffe, an experienced biodynamic gardener and a former research biologist at Cornell University who had come to believe that orthodox science was inadequate to understand the living plant. In the autumn of 1985 Radcliffe began preparing raised beds for spring planting on three acres leased from Van En and a prospectus was issued. This offered thirty year-round shares, each adequate to feed 2-3 people, plus a further thirty winter root-crop shares, designed for people who had their own vegetable garden for fresh produce in the summer but who did not grow enough potatoes, turnips, parsnips and other root vegetables to see them through the rest of the year.

"Distribution of the harvest will be twice a week in season and then once every two weeks for winter storage crops" the prospectus read. "The harvest will be divided into equal shares and made available at various pick-up points around the area. We plan to provide, per delivery, an average of 5lbs of vegetables/herbs twice weekly in season and about 20lbs every other week in winter."

The costs of growing these were estimated at just under $21,000, which worked out at $557 per full share and $140 for a winter share, assuming that all the shares were taken up. As had been the case at Topinambur, prospective members were also asked to provide two days' labour each during the year and to accept that the final price of their share could vary by as much as 12% either way, depending on how things turned out. Members were also asked to demonstrate their commitment to the project by paying for their shares in advance if they were able to do so. Because of the success of the apple harvesting, most of the shares were sold without much difficulty, particularly as roughly $13 a week for 43 weeks' supply of really fresh organically-grown vegetables - which was what a full share was expected to provide - would be better value than any shop.

When production began, the gardeners and their assisting members aimed to have everything picked by 11am on delivery days. "If there were 35 shares each receiving two lettuces, one red leaf and one romaine, then that is what we would cut" Van En says. "Most other things were picked according to what was ready or ripe". These bulk items were weighed on an old railway goods scale and then divided into individual shares using baby nursery scales. Packed in dampened returnable muslin bags, each member's share of the harvest was available for collection from the farm at lunchtime or left, by arrangement, at several drop-off points in the town during the afternoon.

The following season's prospectus offered 55 full season shares at $597 each, and twenty winter shares at $160, giving the project an income of $36,000, 80% of which was spent on labour. Even so, Radcliffe was paid only $13,500 for his thirty weeks of work during the growing season, a sum which a core group member later admitted was about half of what he should have earned. In 1988, the cost of a full share set at $300 by the simple expedient of halving the quantities that members could expect to get as some families found that they had been receiving more vegetables than they could eat. As a result, 135 full season shares were taken up. (Reprint diagram showing cropping seasons)

A farm where food is free (Click for panel from original book)

It was at this point that things went wrong. So far, the group had merely had a three-year lease on the land at Indian Line Farm with the option to buy. As the third season drew to a close, everyone was keen that the option should be taken up and a valuer was called in say what the price should be. "He fixed a fair price for the land but put a derisory figure on the barn, saying that nobody had any use for barns in this area any longer" Van En says. "But the point was, the group had a use for it. They were packing everything on these tables here and the root vegetable store was there at the back. As you've seen, it's a good solid three-storey building, much better built than my house."

The group would not improve on the valuer's figure, so Van En refused to sell and the group bought another site for their operations, on the other side of Great Barrington. She continued subscription gardening at Indian Line Farm in 1989 and 1990 with a new head gardener until her work in promoting the CSA concept through the United States became so demanding that she had to give one or the other up. So Indian Line is mostly hayfield and pasture again, although the garden plot is rented to an organic grower and the barn may be used for a community-supported brewery. This scarcely matters, however, because the system that Robyn Van En, Jan Vandertuin and Hugh Radcliffe established there lives on, and at the end of 1995 there were over 600 community-supported horticultural or agricultural operations involving 100,000 people in the United States alone, taking several different organisational forms and producing a wide range of products. Even city-dwellers participate, contracting with a grower in the country to produce grain, meat, fruit, vegetables or milk for them.(Click for 2002 update by Caroline Whyte)

The idea entered Britain in 1990 when a Scottish softfruit grower, John Butterworth, read an article about it in the excellent Canadian rural life magazine Harrowsmith. Butterworth had been selling some of his organic raspberries and blackcurrants to Dave Bellingham, a retired naval electrical engineer, and his wife Eileen, who owned the two-acre walled garden at Sundrum Castle about five miles from Ayr where they were producing free-range eggs and growing vegetables which they sold from a van.

The van round wasn't doing particularly well and the Bellinghams felt they were getting insufficient output from the walled garden to enable it to do so" Butterworth says . "They asked me if I could help improve production and I, in turn approached a friend, Carol Freireich, a long-standing organic gardener and the four of us formed Ayrshire Organic Growers as a workers' co-operative. We wanted to devise the best marketing system possible and the Harrowsmith idea of local people buying shares in the operation of the farm seemed very attractive."55

By sending out leaflets to friends, van-round customers and local members of Friends of the Earth, they found 25 families prepared to subscribe 180 each for their vegetables, paying either in a lump sum or in three 62 instalments. The new system began in the spring of 1991 and a subscribers' meeting was held that autumn to review progress. The feedback was that, despite teething problems, the project had been well worthwhile. The main disappointment seems to have been the failure of the mange-tout pea crop due to faulty seed. Otherwise, the burning issues subscribers discussed were how many outer leaves should be left on the lettuces and whether seven pounds of potatoes a week was too little or too much.

Forty subscribers signed up for the 1992 season, including all but one of the previous year's families, and 53 varieties of fruit and vegetables were grown. This huge range greatly reduced the risk of the co-op being unable to meet its delivery commitments due to crop failure, which was just as well because a gale blew the plastic cover of a polytunnel away and a cold and wet early spring, a dry late spring and early summer and a wet autumn caused the potatoes and the onions to be affected by rot and some vegetables to crop badly. It also points up a big difference in the approaches adopted at Indian Line Farm and at Sundrum.

At Indian Line, all the produce belonged to the subscribers because they had hired the gardeners, rented the land and provided the equipment. In the event of crop failure, the subscribers took all the risk. They had no guarantee that there would be any relationship between the shop price of vegetables and the total value of those produced on their behalf because there was no-one involved who was able to give it. At Sundrum on the other hand, the operation is owned by the co-op, not the subscribers, and getting families to pay up front for their vegetables is little more than an efficient and effective financial and marketing tool. Under the agreement signed annually between the co-op and its subscribers, the value of each week's delivery is calculated using the prices of non-organic fruit and vegetables that week in the Safeway supermarket in Ayr where Eileen Bellingham works part-time as a cashier, and the co-op guarantees that, if the total value of its deliveries for the year falls below 170, it will refund the difference. When it has to supply poorer quality produce because of weather conditions or pest damage, it reduces prices below the Safeway figure.

"The customer does share the risk in two ways" Butterworth says. "Firstly, we only guarantee 170-worth of produce, not 180. That's not a great difference but it does establish the principle that the farm is subject to risk and that the shareholders bear some of it. Secondly, we don't guarantee the exact quantities of each crop that people will get and it's certainly possible that at some times of the year they'll be fed up with certain crops, runner beans for example."

Nevertheless, Robyn van En would not regard Sundrum as a true community garden. She thinks it important that growers be free from economic pressures if they are to do the best job they can. This means that the financing of the crops should be the responsibility of the consumers who should also carry all, or almost all, of the risk. "Paying a farmer or a gardener a guaranteed income establishes his or her professional status" she says. "During the first year at Indian Line Farm, a freak thunderstorm dropped eight inches of rain in three hours. The mixed cropping and the raised beds meant that the winter squash was the only real loss. It was harvested prematurely and members cooked or froze whatever they wanted. This translated into a $35 loss on each share purchase but it would have been a $3,500 loss on a family farm."

In cash terms, about two-thirds of the Ayrshire co-op's produce is grown in the walled garden at Sundrum and in two polytunnels, with maincrop potatoes and carrots being bought in from another registered organic grower in the area. This meant that its produce was effectively coming from only five or six acres "We don't even have a tractor and borrow one when we need to" Butterworth told me in early 1995, although it bought one later in the year. "At present, the operation isn't even generating a full-time job - we're all part-time - but that will come." Shortage of growing space was becoming a problem and the co-op was planning to set up a land trust to acquire fifty acres near the walled garden to produce organic milk and meat and to ensure that only organic food had been fed to the animals responsible for the manure applied to the garden. This is highly desirable because, amongst other things, drugs such as Ivermectin which are used to treat cattle for intestinal worms, lice and ticks are excreted by the animals and go on killing organisms living in the soil for a long period before they are broken down.

The co-op holds two meetings a year for subscribers, one in the winter so that they can help shape planting plans and give their reaction to the previous year's performance, the second in the summer so that they can see the garden and meet each other socially. Beyond this, most subscribers' input into the system is negligible although one couple provides a day's labour each during July and August and has offered a low-interest loan while another customer, who is in the pump business, has given an irrigation system.

The co-op had 80 customers for its 1995 season and had lost only two of the original participants. (Include list of expected vegetables put out by Sundrum) Its subscription rate was still 180 for those able to collect from the garden but for those who could not, a 20 a year delivery was charge had been introduced which could be split among customers sharing the same drop. After four seasons, Butterworth remained highly enthusiastic about subscription gardening: "We have no waste. We don't have to conform to any prepacked sizes for absurd cosmetic standards. We use minimum packaging which is all re-used, not recycled, and transport costs are kept to a minimum. From a financial standpoint, we've a guaranteed market from one year to the next."

At the end of 1995 there were three or four other subscription farms or gardens operating in the UK according to Eric Booth of the Soil Association but none was a true community effort on the American model. In addition, some fifty or sixty organic growers were using the box system under which a household agrees to take a box of vegetables, the contents varying according to whatever is in season, for a fixed price each week but does not pay in advance. Amongst the pioneers of this system were Tim and Jan Deane of Northwood Farm, Cristow near Exeter, who have used it they found out the hard way in 1991 that they were not going to be able to survive financially by growing ten acres of organic vegetables and selling them on the wholesale market.

"We had begun packing a few individual orders in addition to our wholesale commitments" Jan says , "but it didn't take us long to realise that this was not the road to prosperity either. Despite the higher price, the value of the individual orders was generally too low to pay for the time it took to make them up, weighing out small quantities was extremely tedious, and people would telephone their orders at highly inconvenient times."56

So they sent out a letter to friends, neighbours and existing retail customers offering to pack and deliver a weekly box of mixed vegetables at a fixed price and twenty households signed up. By the end of the season, over forty boxes were going out and when they circulated a questionnaire, they were surprised to find that many people appreciated the convenience of not having to decide what vegetables to buy. From their own point of view, the system overcame most of the disadvantages of packing to order, particularly as they could save time by estimating quantities by eye.

Today, they offer three sizes of box, 3.50, 4.50 and 5.50, and allow their 200 customers to say what types of vegetable they would prefer not to receive. "We make it clear that we can't guarantee to make substitutions but in practice it's usually quite easy to do" Jan says. Some customers act as drop-off points so that several boxes can be delivered at the one stop. The boxes are reusable and each carries the customer's name so that anyone who has failed to return two or three can be chased up.

In 1993, the couple had their worst growing season in the ten years they had been in business and had to buy in produce from other organic growers, severely eroding their income. However, if they had had to rely on the wholesale trade to distribute their produce they reckon they would have been out of business. "Our customers often take the trouble to tell us that they appreciate the food we produce for them" Jan says. "When you are out in the leek field and you can no longer feel your fingers and toes and the rain is seeping through your waterproofs, that means a lot. It's called job satisfaction."Click for 2003 update by Caroline Whyte

Perhaps the most ambitious community-supported agricultural project in the British Isles is the 13-acre garden established by the Philipstown Trust outside Dundalk in Ireland. The Trust is the brainchild of Ollan Herr, who set up and runs a business making sluice gates and similar water-way equipment in the technology park attached to the town's regional technical college. He formed the Trust to work towards local sustainability in 1992 immediately after the Earth Summit in Rio. "Even before the world's leaders met, we knew that nothing would be done and we would have to do any work ourselves" he says.

Herr believes conventional farming is unsustainable and the Trust has the encouragement of a gradual change-over to organic agriculture among its wide-ranging objectives. However, he admits that there were personal reasons for making subscription gardening its first project: "I wanted my family to be able to eat organic vegetables and I knew that I was never going to be able to grow them myself. I was buying them from a friend, Mark Deary, who was growing them and selling them from a van and I was worried that if Mark got married, which didn't seem unlikely, his wife would suggest that he went back to teaching so that they could have a decent income. So to ensure that Mark could earn a decent living as a grower I began to think about what could be done."

Page 4 of Chapter 6

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Short Circuit by Richard Douthwaite: links within this site

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