Feast & Farming
I don't think 2020 requires any introduction; Covid-19 brought both globalism and food supply into sharp focus for many as supply chains struggled to cope with a demand surge created by the uncertainty that many people were feeling as pandemic gathered pace. Nothing had actually happened to our food supply, but people’s natural instinct to hoard supplies highlighted the fragility of the system that now provides the vast majority of our needs on a need-not-know basis. We had become so used to walking into a vast superstore and being able to source from a vast array of foods and other products to sustain our daily life.
I had already started to think more about this early on in the year when I was traveling into York each week to deliver meat boxes and then do the weekly food shop. In a bid to minimise unnecessary journeys (and the associated fossil fuel use) I also combined this with taking my daughter to her after school class in the city. Of course trying to cram everything into a single trip meant that we invariably ended up in a supermarket, both for the convenience of parking and the late opening times. There is something rather incongruous about delivering local food to a city, encouraging people to buy small & local, and then doing our own food shopping in a cathedral to many of the problems that farmers face today.
I’m not the only one though - my experience of being inside farm kitchens up and down the country is that farmers themselves are as complicit in the widespread changes in shopping & eating habits as anyone else. Of course we are busy people working long hours and the supermarket, with it’s long opening hours and free parking offers the perfect opportunity to shop at our convenience, which makes us little different to any other consumer in the UK today. If we, who feel directly the effects of food price deflation, can’t pay a bit more and commit to buying local, how can we ever expect the wider population to? Of course most farmers are as detached from the people who consume their produce as the public are from farming so we all get away with it, filling our trolleys unchallenged by anyone beyond our own conscience.
In my research for this blog and throughout successive covid lockdowns I’ve interacted with a wide variety of farmers, trying to discover the common thread that unites us all. A vast diversity of farms exist in the UK from whole estates rewilded to tiny cultivated market gardens but there remains an immense pride in nourishing people that is intrinsic to the identity of being ‘a farmer’. We may not all agree upon what the ‘best’ way to farm is but we are bound by the same battle of adversity against the weather and the markets. As I explored in my last blog, when the country needed them most farmers made every effort to produce more food, even when it went against their sense of what was right, they rose to the challenge.
Today we face much greater challenges, many of them caused by our efforts to grow more food in the past but none-the-less we must continue to produce more food while also reversing the damage done. Climate change has definitely now piqued the public’s interest but I still don’t think many people fully appreciate how the loss of diversity represents a much greater threat to our long term survival. Diversity not just in wildlife but also in culture, systems and food - if we are ever to adapt to the inevitability of a changing climate it’s vital that we preserve as many of our food production systems as possible for long term resilience and adaptability.
It was summer 2019 when I first met Joe Fennerty. He introduced himself, after an apology for not having discovered us sooner, as ‘Food Circle York’ but gave no more information as to what that is. It later transpired that he still struggles to define exactly what Food Circle is but it definitely revolves around building a better food system. Anyway, he was getting in touch to enquire if it were possible to source a short-order brisket for an Organic Farmers & Growers event two weeks hence (read this blog to appreciate the irony here) for which he was part of the catering team. Although the organic farmers playing host to the event did keep their own cattle, because they supplied a major retailer with beef they weren’t able to have any of theirs on the menu. That says an awful lot about the food system we are working with.
I mustered what rolled brisket joints I had available and we arranged a convenient time for him to collect the meat and take a look at what we were doing here on the farm. At the allotted time a van rolled into the yard and out stepped a guy who looked more at home with his hands in the soil than your average chef. My initial impression was of a man with a deep seated passion for what he is doing and a genuine desire to make the world a better place. It turned out to be a very accurate assessment and Food Circle is all about making real connections between people and their food.
The best way I can describe Food Circle is to compare it to a supermarket, except instead of adding value by buying as cheaply as possible Joe adds value by bringing the very best fresh food that Yorkshire has to offer into the urban communities where real people live, all in one place, not even a bus ride away.
Food Circle boasts that food is ‘affordable, not cheap’ and this allows him to pay his producers up front on delivery, unlike the supermarkets that often settle their bills three months after delivery, long after the food has been sold and the profits made. And he really does care about the food he supplies and the people who produce and consume it.
As I’ve mentioned before, the problem for small scale meat producers is that the cost of serving customers who buy just a few items often exceeds the profit on the sale. Major retailers can spread this cost by encouraging you to buy a much wider range of products in a single transaction and they also have the economies of scale to process the order quickly and anonymously. By contrast we want consumers to be engaged and interested in their food but with time at a premium for small farmers, preparing for and attending regular markets to sell only relatively small amounts of produce is less than sustainable. By bringing together all the elements in one place Joe enables you to buy more convenient quantities in a way that helps his producers.
Another of Food Circle’s beliefs that food should be ‘deliciously inconsistant’ is perhaps the most challenging of all. Not because people don’t like delicious food but the secret to the success of every big chain retailer or fast food outlet starts with getting you through the door. Customers do not expect to be wowed by the menu but we do like to know what to expect. This involves trading taste for certainty, with the food we’re about to purchase varying little day by day and from one city to the next. The lines of seasonality have been blurred and instead of enjoying foods at their very best for only a few weeks each year we know that we can enjoy our favourite meals anywhere, any time, and we don’t have to deal with the trauma of impromptu decisions.
To shop at Food Circle requires a change of mindset from that which you might expect elsewhere. Joe has taken the leg work out of buying local, but he doesn’t try to hide the fact when a crop has failed or the harvest is delayed. We experienced this everywhere in 2020, of course, as the supermarkets could not maintain the illusion of abundance as customers began stocking up on everyday items such as toilet rolls, and food supply chains buckled under the weight of unexpected events. I’d already decided to cut down the supermarket trips before lockdown was announced - aside from everything else, mixing in a building where thousands of others had been before didn’t seem like the best way to avoid a highly infectious disease.
Lockdown started just at the beginning of the ‘hungry gap’, the period of the year between the last harvest of winter and the first crops of spring sowings. We notice this period less in the supermarket because of a combination of cold storage and regular imports from the glass houses of Europe but it represents a barrier of expectation to the local food movement. However it’s not insurmountable to the seasonal eater and I find that it resets the taste buds to better appreciate the delights of things to come. Our cattle are a little more forgiving than fresh veg crops so meat is available year round but there is noticeably less fat in spring as the animals have drawn on their reserves over winter, gradually building them up again into the autumn. A combination of freezer stocks and a variety of producers keeps Food Circle supplied with milk, eggs, cheese, yoghurt, butter, pork, bacon, sausages, chicken, venison & beef so fluctuations are common but shortages rare.
When you’re feeling uninspired by how to make a meal out of the produce on offer Food Circle plays it’s ace card in the form of Jim, the chef. Each week, alongside the food markets, hot food is served from the little yellow hot food trailer in a convenient take away format. The difference with most takeaways is that the menu changes each time according to what may be in season or preserved from previous gluts.
While fostering interaction between farmers and shoppers is very important, we should not underestimate the value of inter-producer contact. As a small food producer and/or processor you are often so busy concentrating on your own business that paying attention to what others are doing can seem like an unnecessary luxury. I think that perhaps Food Circle’s greatest achievement to date is the information exchange between it’s suppliers. Sharing knowledge, experience and encouragement between ‘competitors’ actually builds a far more resilient and profitable food system for all. The idea that consumers are better served by an ever decreasing pool of suppliers is perhaps the greatest fallacy of the competitive market and, unlike the supermarkets, you are far more likely to find Joe encouraging you to charge him more, rather than less.
Food Circle is continually developing and the most recent move has been to set up the Food Circle Egg Co-operative to provide a vital link in the chain between small producers and consumers. The coop provides the facilities necessary to successfully market eggs through third parties as well as proving the concept to roll out across other areas. The lack of provision for local food processing holds back many small enterprises who often have neither the time nor scale to cost effectively invest in their own processing, packing and distribution. By working together to share resources and experience, Food Circle is both increasing availability and reducing the cost of eating better.
I’m pleased to say that Joe’s commitment to building a better food system hasn’t gone unnoticed having been shortlisted in the BBC Food & Farming Awards 2021 for the Best Market or Shop. These awards represent excellence in British farming and food, and this year the focus was on the efforts made by nominees to respond to and keep feeding people throughout the pandemic, and on this basis Food Circle York is already winning.
ETA - I'm even more pleased to say that Food Circle York was successful in becoming the BBC Food Awards Best Market in 2021!