A rural initiative connecting farmers with their local community is gaining momentum and it is all thanks to the French, as Marie Claire Kidd finds out.
An online local food retailing platform is sweeping across the UK, promoting British farmers and their produce as it goes.
Originally from France, the food initiative was founded in 2010 by Guilhem Cheron and Marc-David Choukroun, as an almost click and collect farmers’ market, connecting consumers with producers through an online shopping portal and weekly collection events.
Customers buy online from a range of local suppliers via a purpose-built website. Orders are paid for in advance so producers know exactly what to bring and there is no waste.
During weekly meet-ups, customers collect their shopping, meet the producers and meet with neighbours and friends. And the phenomenon is growing fast.
In Europe, there are 836 branches in France alone, with a further 582 across Belgium, Spain, Germany, Denmark, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Italy.
The first British Food Assembly popped up in London’s Hackney in July 2014, followed closely by another in Chester. Now there are 87 up and running or in construction throughout the UK, with more than 20,000 customers.
Each Food Assembly is an independent, local service provider and prices are set by producers, who receive 83.3 per cent of the retail price. The local Food Assembly host gets 8.35 per cent commission for organising the online shop and the weekly collection.
The Food Assembly itself gets the same commission for providing the web platform and dealing with payments. These are administered by Mangopay, an online payment technology designed for marketplaces, crowdfunding platforms and sharing economy businesses.
While this payment method is standard, each assembly is different. Welsh-based Llangollen Food Assembly is held in a cafe, while Cockemouth, Cumbria, takes place in the town’s United Reformed Church. Some provide a meal as part of the meet-up and many put on tastings and events.
Considering supplying a Food Assembly? You need to know:
In Todmorden, West Yorkshire, a Food Assembly has recently emerged to support the ‘Incredible Edible’ movement, which started in the town.
Producers involved include established farm businesses, such as free-range egg producer Lower Balkram Edge Farm, organic dairy farmer and cheesemaker Pextenement, and free-range pig farmer Porcus. Along with these are innovative new businesses, such as aquaponic grower Incredible AquaGarden and upland market gardens Incredible Farm and Sagar Lane.
Just eight miles away, Halifax Food Assembly shares many of Todmorden’s producers. Halifax Food Assembly host Carol Longbottom says the initiative is mutually beneficial.
She says: “Farmers can connect directly with customers through the Food Assembly and build on the relationship week-by-week. Knowing exactly what they have sold before they come to the collection cuts waste down to zero and, because our collection is only two hours per week, it is not as time consuming as standing on a market stall.
“Our producers speak to each other at weekly collections and they have made new business connections. Many of our farmers now supply more delis, shops and other food producers because of the connections they have made through the Food Assembly.”
The aim of the Food Assembly, organisers say, is to enable the public to purchase quality food directly from local farmers and small-scale producers.
Mr Cheron says new connections between consumers and farmers are critical: “Agriculture is an industry which has run out of steam. It needs to be reinvented and relocalised by giving power back to the consumer and food producer.
“We connect neighbours to farmers, neighbours to each other, and everyone to their food. We are constantly seeking to sharpen our tool which connects people to local food producers.
“Our vision is a world with shorter supply chains, where people connect to their food in a better way. By combining technology and sustainable agriculture, we want to support a healthier world where everyone can thrive.”
James Haigh of J. Haigh and Sons, a family dairy farm in Barkisland, near Halifax, attends a Food Assembly every week, selling milk, raw milk and cream.
He says: “We cover about 250 acres and milk about 110-130 Holstein-Friesian cows twice-a-day.
We process about 40 per cent of our production in our on-farm dairy.
“We mainly joined to sell our unpasteurised milk. We got our licence to sell it about 18 months ago, soon after Halifax Food Assembly started. We looked into doing a vending machine outside the farm, but we priced it up and it would have been too expensive.
“It is going well selling through the Food Assembly and the milk round. It us the raw milk which makes it worthwhile going through the Food Assembly.
“We have an average order. It could always be better, but we have a regular customer base now, so people keep coming back. People who want to support it are willing to pay a bit extra.
“We have a direct order, so you know exactly what you are taking and you get to meet the people you are delivering to and get a rapport with them. It is another way of getting a positive message out about British farming.
“We get paid very fairly and it comes quick. You are meeting different producers as well. We have done a bit of cross-trading with other farmers and we have done a bit of shopping there ourselves.
“The main negative was getting started. They wanted a lot more information than we thought they really needed. It was a bit long-winded.
“It is nice to see we have more than 1,000 members at Halifax. We have gained customers on the milk round through it and we have more customers coming to yard and buying. I think it is a good thing.”
Paul Sousek started Jacobstow Food Assembly near Bude, Cornwall, to create a market for his meat.
He says: “I started farming 12 years ago without any background or previous experience. We were producing beef and lamb.
“We began by selling on the internet, for example on eBay and Big Barn. We were selling boxes of 10-30kg of meat.
“When you slaughter, there is a variable amount of meat available. We always ended up with meat in the freezer, which was a lot for us to deal with.
“When I heard about the Food Assembly, I thought it would be ideal for me. I started it three years ago for selfish reasons, as a way to sell our excess meat.
“For two years, we were selling a lot though the Food Assembly. We would slaughter once a month and sell meat frozen. It was a really neat way of soaking up the excess we had from our meat boxes.
“Eventually, we had to slaughter more animals to satisfy the demand from the Food Assembly. For any farmer selling meat boxes, this is a very good argument.
“We retired from farming a year ago, but still run the Food Assembly. We now rent the land we have to other organic farmers.
“At the beginning of January, we switched our Food Assembly to delivery only. More people wanted their shopping delivered. Just two or three people were coming to the collections, so it was not worth renting the space.
“We purchased a shopping container next to our house, which we use for storing non-perishable supplies from various local suppliers.
“The good thing about the Food Assembly is it is all local. The negative is there is just one weekly pick-up. People do not want wait a whole week until they get their shopping, so there are limitations.
“We are trying to get around it by saying we can deliver throughout the week. Customers can also pick up here.”
2: Number of Food Assemblies in the UK in 2014
87: Number of Food Assemblies up and running or in construction in the UK today
20,000: Number of Food Assembly members in the UK
26 miles: Average distance of a product sold through the Food Assembly
10,000 miles: Distance fruit travels from the US to British retailers
33%: Amount cheaper to buy organic vegetables through direct selling than at supermarkets
53%: Amount of food supplied domestically within the UK
Source: Food Assembly