British Farmers Are Ditching the Supermarkets

UK farmers are ditching the supermarkets and selling directly to shoppers through new online organisations like The Food Assembly. Aesthetic specifications are non-existent and you’re free to sell whatever you want for whatever you can get.

by Michael Segalov
Dec 21 2015, 1:00pm

All photos by the author.

The way we buy food in the UK is changing.

After five years of government austerity measures and the continual fall of real term wages, some of us simply can't afford to eat, which does kind of alter your shopping habits. Oxfam calculates that over 20 million meals were given to people in food poverty between 2013 to 2014, which is a 54 percent increase on the previous year.

Meanwhile, those of us who can scrape together enough to do a weekly shop are spending our squeezed pounds in budget supermarkets like Lidl and Aldi, who in turn, are nabbing an ever-increasing percentage of the grocery market.

READ MORE: Dairy Farmers Are Paying the True Price of Britain's Cheap Milk

But along with such financial factors, there's another change in the way Britain buys food. "Farm-to-plate" has become a restaurant industry trend, you can barely walk through your average city centre without stumbling upon a farmers market, and the wait time for allotments has reached up to 40 years in some areas of London.

Whether for economic or environmental reasons, we're ready to cut out the middlemen and eat seasonal, local produce.

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Stein Leenders, owner of Brambletye Fruit Farm.

One such producer is Dutch born Stein Leenders who owns Brambletye Fruit Farm, just outside the picturesque village of Forest Row in East Sussex. After studying organic farming in Holland, Leenders purchased 35,000 apple trees and rocked up to the UK with them stashed in seven articulated lorries.

"In the first five years of growing apples, I was basically just supplying supermarkets" Leenders recalls, as he walks me along the gravel into the 60-acre site. "Every year, I was unable to sell some of the crop because my apples were often bigger than the weight limits that supermarkets set. I was fed up with the continual battle over specifications."

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Chickens at Brambletye Fruit Farm in East Sussex.

Today, the farm grows organic vegetables, herbs, apples, and pears, as well as keeping chickens and bees. Leenders now only sells directly to his customers, having made the decision to leave the big buyers. It was a move made possible through our return to shopping at fresh produce markets.

"Sales are growing year on year, my retail side has been bubbling" Leenders exclaims, as I'm passed an apple to munch on. "It certainly feels as if there are more people coming to buy our products, and that's not just me; suppliers and producers are seeing this all over the shop."

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As I'm introduced to the various children playing on site (some are Leenders,' some he's never met before), I ask whether he thinks supermarkets are a problem for farmers.

"It's still incredibly exciting and attractive as a prospect for farmers to sell directly to supermarkets. Everything gets purchased, they'll buy in bulk," he suggests. "But you're at their mercy. It's a self-inflicted problem, farmers aren't just stuck, they decide to go into business and become reliant on the supermarkets. If you become reliant on just one buyer and suddenly they can get what they want cheaper, then you're fucked."

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It's not just fruit and veg growers at the mercy of large scale buyers, dairy farmers are being hit hard too. Keeping cattle fed and looked after costs a farmer around 30p for each litre of milk that's produced, but many are being paid just 20p per litre.

For producers like Leenders, the appeal of selling directly to customers is obvious: margins are higher, aesthetic specifications are non-existent, and you're free to sell whatever you want for whatever you can get.

But what is driving customers to desert the clinical corridors of Tesco, and find new ways of buying directly from source? To find out, I tag along with Leenders on one of his regular trips to The Food Assembly.

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The-Food-Assembly-farmer-producer Leenders' stock ready to sell at an "Assembly" at London's Roman Road Market.

"The Food Assembly is a French concept created by French entrepreneurs Guilhem Chéron and Marc-David Choukroun," explains Katie Roche, who moved from Dublin to London to join The Food Assembly team. "They saw the need for a healthier food system, one that isn't driven by global prices, big industry, and dictated by supermarkets."

There are currently 26 "Assemblies" in the UK, with over 700 across in France. Customers order the products they want online based on what the producer has available that week. The produce can't come from further than 150 miles but most of what I see is much more local.

"Some customers want to know everything that we do" explains Leenders, as we sit in rush hour traffic by the Blackwall Tunnel. "Right down to whether we give our bees sugar or whether there's soybeans in the chicken feed as it damages the Amazon."

Pulling up at Roman Road Market in London's Tower Hamlets, we start to unload the car. This Food Assembly is held in Vinarius, a smart new Italian wine bar and reminder that Roman Road—like many parts of London—is changing.

Inside, Assembly hosts Ioana Dragomir and Laura Polazzi are laying out homemade cakes and greeting producers who have turned up with the weekly orders.

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"I'm from Romania," Dragomir tells me, as she sips her glass of red. "Until we started The Food Assembly, I never experienced a sense of community here. People ask me on the street, What did you make last night? How is your son? I get my kicks from building this sort of community."

Among the producers is Bill from the Kappacasein Dairy, one of a handful of cheese makers in London. Having only travelled four miles from the dairy, the all important food miles are negligible. I ask if producers find that Assemblies are more sustainable than a traditional market.

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"Certainly, this combination of internet shopping and a farmers market is ideal," he replies, encouraging me to try his ricotta drizzled in a local honey. "It's a really cool hybrid. I know what I've sold in advance so I don't leave with anything; no products get wasted at all."

Waste is a hot topic at the moment. While France may have just made it illegal for supermarkets to throw away food, the UK is the biggest waster in Europe. It's something Bill's customers think about when visiting his stall too.

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"I got to talk to the man who made the cheese we've been eating all week," Helen tells me, as her kids tuck into the tasters on display. "Now we know where the cows are, our relationship with the food feels much stronger, the process seems much more real."

This sentiment is shared by a lot of people I speak to: we just don't trust the supermarkets. It's not hard to see why. Dodgy pricing techniques have become commonplace, chicken is at risk of contamination, and remember that time your burgers were actually horse meat?

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"I'm looking for something local so I know my money goes," says Hackney local Georgia, who is visiting the Assembly for the first time. "It's straight to the growers, producers, and farmers as it should be."

READ MORE: Most UK Chicken Is Contaminated and Shoppers Are Pissed

According to the New Economics Foundation, the UK food system employs approximately 11 percent of the UK labour force but most of them are in "the least well-paid jobs" with salaries of "less than half the UK average." You can see why Georgia wants to know where her money is going.

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In comparison, Leenders pays all his permanent staff the living wage, and will take home 80 percent of the takings from the Assembly, compared to the 20 to 40 percent of retail price he'd get from the supermarkets.

"By supplying directly to customers, there's never a moment where my fruit will just get rejected," Leenders explains. "I can push the boundaries on storing fruit for as long as possible, experiment with new products, and find out directly from customers what they want to be eating."

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And why do customers like it? Roche thinks it's pretty obvious.

"When you meet the baker who's been up at 5 AM to bake your bread or the person who's picked your apples, and you meet his family and get to know them, you don't waste those apples," she explains. "Food tastes better, you enjoy it more, you understand it, and you savour it."

This post originally appeared on MUNCHIES in May 2015.