The challenges of ‘local’ food

By Guy Singh-Watson

Making a living from growing veg even on a medium scale is challenging at best and near impossible without favourable soils, climate and topography, all of which are hard to find in South Devon. Since planting my first leeks in the field next to the farm shop in 1987 there has been a 90% decline in horticulture in South Devon. The last big swede grower gave up this year. The brutal reality is that most crops can be grown more cheaply and more reliably on flatter, more fertile, dryer, sunnier and larger farms further east, particularly on the peaty fens, largely sandy East Anglia and climatically favoured Hampshire basin. As organic growers, perhaps the biggest issue is the moisture laden air coming off the Atlantic on our predominant westerly winds creating the rain and damp which make fungal disease harder to control and winter harvest from wet fields a messy, often soil (and soul) damaging job.

Looking long term, these apparently favoured areas all have their environmental problems subterranean aquifers being depleted by irrigation, oxidising and rapidly disappearing peats contributing to GHG emissions and climate change and wind erosion, but in the short term they have lower operating costs and are closer to the main markets; in a the brutal world of commercial horticulture, with the exception of those growers supplying Riverford, there is now very little veg growing between Bodmin and Taunton.

On a more positive side our mixed farms, including fertility building grass and clover leys grazed by sheep and cows, plus the availability of manure make organic farming easier and our complex, balanced soils can contribute to better flavour and nutritional value. Getting people to pay for flavour and sustainability can be a challenge; if we don’t buy from these growers they will not be there when we need them; their skills will be lost, machinery sold and the market infra-structure dissipated.

“We couldn’t plan for Covid”

Ben tells me that customers have been frustrated by the lack of local produce in the shops over the last eight months; sentiments also reflected in comments from out veg-box customers. We’re primarily a veg box scheme and like all home delivery businesses, experienced a massive spike in April and May that, to a lesser degree, has continued. It doesn’t grow on trees unless you plant them first and over the years, we have worked hard to buy locally by founding and supporting the South Devon Organic Producers cooperative of mixed farms, who include vegetables in their rotation. From planning, buying seeds, through planting, growing, harvest and sometimes storage, it can be 18 months before the veg is on the shop’s shelves. Elsewhere, both in the UK and abroad, where there’s larger pool of growers, there’s a bit more room to take up the slack. We’ve just had to look further afield for supplies and have generally succeeded because it’s not as though Europe, en-masse, is consuming more vegetables. Obviously, we’d like to buy local but we’re 100% organic (which is another constraint) so it takes a lot of planning. We couldn’t plan for Covid.

The best we (people) can do to ensure the supply of local veg is to buy it, to eat more seasonally, to be tolerant of mis-shapes and to ask the searching questions (arriving through a local wholesaler does not make it local and it certainly doesn’t ensure it hasn’t been air-freighted (another of our purchasing criteria)). But we still need to look at the big picture. In the real world bananas, citrus, a 12-month supply of tomatoes, peppers, courgettes, apples etc are non-negotiable. These things can’t be provided naturally from the UK, so given this reality, we’ve done a lot of research to allow us to make intelligent compromises.

There are two options: growing out-of-season produce at home using artificial heat (usually generated by burning gas or oil although there are some impressive glass houses heated by waste energy from anaerobic digesters), or importation. In the Riverford Sustainable Development Project, Exeter University concluded that freight, even by road, is by far the greener choice. Take the example of tomatoes. For every kilo of tomatoes grown in a UK hothouse, 2-3 kilos of C02 are released into the atmosphere. When we can’t grow tomatoes at home without heat, we truck over naturally sun-ripened ones from Spain. This uses just a tenth of the carbon – and sun-ripened toms taste better, too.

Some might question why does it matter? The environmental arguments are not always persuasive but I would argue that a strong local food culture based on small and medium sized, normally family farmers, growers, butchers, bakers etc is a vital part of our wider culture. If we don’t feel connected to our food, we will cherish it less, spend less time in the kitchen with all the health and social costs that come with the growing predominance of ultra-processed food.