Sunday, 22 August 2010

In Praise of Farm Shops

This week we were told that officers were concerned that one particular farm shop in Grouville was selling too many non-local goods and that there was a danger that if all the others followed suit it would all get out of hand and the town shops would be left out of pocket. Well bless my soul. Poor old town shops. I suppose all those out-of-own Marks & Spencer outlets will be out of pocket, too. And maybe the Waitrose that is moving into the former Safeway site. Perhaps Checkers might be feeling the pinch, or Spar, or even the CI Co-op. Or - and this is pure speculation - perhaps Planning have been talking to Economic Development, who are so keen to bring in a 'third' supermarket company from somewhere or other, and they are trying to make sure that the farm shops are not providing too much direct competition.(Christine Herbert, JEP) (1)

I don't always find myself in agreement with Christine Herbert but reading her piece on farm shops in the JEP, I was inclined to agree that there appears to be a vendetta against farm shops on the basis that they don't only sell local produce. In particular, as we all know, Stanley Payn of Holme Grown seems to have been singled out as a case in point by the planning Department. While it is true that there are items on sale at Stanley Payn's farm shop which are not local and which make it more of a small shop selling general goods, there are two significant differences between that and both the smaller shops selling general goods as well as local produce and the supermarkets which also aim to sell local produce.

Smaller shops do not in general sell a great deal of local seasonal produce. I had been to Spar, for example, and there is an extremely small area for vegetables. A farm shop, whatever other goods it may sell, has a large area devoted to local produce with a considerable variety and choice. It may be merely my imagination, but the produce also looks considerably fresher -- I have myself been in a farm shop when a local farmer was stocking shelves with freshly dug new potatoes -- and you can't get fresher than that! Holme Grown also does its own bread and several farm shops also have small trailer shops which appear periodically to sell fresh fish. There is no way that you will find this all available in the local small village shops or town shop. Even the Co-op Locale, which has more fresh vegetables than some, still has a much more limited range. It's not their fault, they are not supplying that range, and people go to larger supermarkets or town markets - or farm shops - if they want it.

So let us look at the other place where one might find or expect to find a good variety of local produce. The large supermarkets in the island certainly stock quite a large amount of local produce and we are told by the BBC's economics reporter on BBC Radio Jersey in last week's morning programme that Safeway also make a point of stocking local produce. However there is a catch -- and this is called quality control. What does this mean?

Marketing to regional wholesalers or large chain store distribution centers requires consistent quality, often requires significant volumes, and in some cases, year-round supplies. These buyers often have specific and demanding requirements for product uniformity, types of containers, cooling, transportation, and delivery of fresh produce.(2)

The key factor in so-called quality control which cause supermarkets to reject some local produce is summed up in that little phrase " product uniformity". This means that potatoes have to be of a similar size, that the look and shape of carrots, green beans, and other vegetables is given an importance which is really beyond significance -- a good proportion of the food which does not meet the standards is nonetheless fresh, tasty, a nutritious -- it does just not meet what is an arbitrary aesthetic judgement. Supermarkets say that they're responding to what the customer wants, but to some degree they are also educating the customer into making an aesthetic judgement on the quality of food which makes no real sense at all. Not all supermarkets do this to the same degree, and some also provide containers of loose vegetables and potatoes from which the customer can make their own selection rather than being given the prepackaged washed "blemish free" containerised food.

Against this, most of the food in farm shops that is local is provided loose for the customer to select with no peculiar artificial selection on what is blemish free or not. One might call this the "That's Life" test, after the television programme presented by Esther Rantzen in which all manner of peculiar and sometimes quite rude looking vegetables made their way before the public's view. There is absolutely nothing wrong with vegetables that have an odd shape because nature does not produce straight bananas, potatoes of uniform size and roundness, and sober shaped carrots (however much the late Mary Whitehouse might have desired it).

If there was no outlet for this kind of produce, it would simply go to waste. And we simply cannot afford these throwaway mentality of the 1960s and 1970s -- for one thing, there is a significant fuel cost for machinery in farming produce, or for heating greenhouses, and there is water use and possibly the use of fertilisers. Our society cannot afford simply to be wasteful and produce food that has to be thrown away for no other reason than it offends the aesthetic sensibility of a marketing salesman at a supermarket. But unless laws are to be introduced to compel supermarkets to take the kind of produce they would otherwise reject, it is with farm shops, and largely farm shops alone, that we will find the failsafe mechanism by which such food can still reach the general public.

Another positive feature of farm shops are their cafes where one can eat locally sourced produce. By contrast the large Checkers supermarket, has a Marks & Spencer cafe which is pretty well wholly dependent upon imported food, apart from milk. When the weather is bad, and there are delays, it cannot supply food - unlike farm shops, where local vegetables, eggs, potatoes, fish and even local meat products are generally available and form a greater part of the meals offered.

Lastly, it should be noted that farm shops are links to farms, and profits from the farm shop support the farmer to a much greater extent than selling to the supermarket where they are often at the mercy of the supermarket setting its own price for the produce and deciding what volume to take.

And as a postscript, did you know that there is one local store selling food which sometimes sells Jersey Royal potatoes and which I have been told apparently transports the potatoes to the United Kingdom for centralised packing and then returning to the Channel Islands? Isn't that madness?


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