Short supply chains for the benefit of nature – the increasing demand for local produce – Helen Keys
We’ve seen a slowly growing demand for local produce over the last few years as consumers have become more conscious about their choices; driven by social media and TV chefs. Then the pandemic and Brexit combined saw demand go through the roof. Veg box schemes saw an increase of 111% during the first lockdown with most unable to meet demand. We heard about local suppliers having to import potatoes because they couldn’t source them here in Northern Ireland.
Even before we saw disruption to our supply chains, Food Foundation research had identified that of the top 50 most popular fruit and veg consumed in the UK there are 16 that could be grown here but currently aren’t.
The challenge for farmers is clear, we need to massively broaden the range of produce and find more direct routes to our local markets.
As a farmer the worry has always been whether we will be able to produce sufficient quantity and consistent quality. When we look at supermarket shelves packed full of perfect strawberries in December we wonder how we could compete, and the short answer is, we can’t. That doesn’t mean we can’t find other ways.
Two years ago we started growing potatoes, we didn’t use any sprays, we chose blight resistant organic varieties, spaced them out well and left them alone. We harvested them as we needed them over 6 months. We put 2kg bags in an Honesty Trailer at the end of the lane and put a sign up asking people to pay a fair price. We got an average of £3.50 a bag. It was an interesting experiment which surprised us and encouraged us to go a bit further, we planted an orchard with support from the EFS scheme, half a field of garlic, some more potatoes but it was a challenge to know what to grow next.
I started to work on an online platform, Source Grow, which would help farmers like us to decide what crops to grow to suit their soil and to meet local demand. We organised zoom calls with 15 of the best restaurants in Northern Ireland and the response was amazing, they are desperate to find good quality local produce, they care about where it comes from, they are prepared to work with what is available and in season. Then the veg box schemes started to get in touch, they are also desperate to find local growers.
If we grow the right things in the right places we don’t need the same inputs, more diverse crops will support more diverse wildlife and pollinators. We won’t need to spray produce with fungicides and sprout suppressants if we don’t need to store it for weeks and months. There are markets for crops like quinoa, lentils, linseed, beans, herbs, edible flowers. Whether it is foraged from hedgerows or grown at field scale, shorter supply chains cost less, both financially and environmentally.
We know that farming systems need to change to address the climate crisis, pollution and habitat loss. We have a huge opportunity with the increase in demand for local produce to transition into less intensive, more profitable crops.
Hedges and Edges of an arable farm in Northern Ireland in Winter David Sandford
Fields are the main asset on most farms & as such the growing of food & fodder is maximised in order to make a financial return. However, in attempting to obtain viable yields it can lead to overlooking the vital part that wildlife & biodiversity plays on every farm.
The importance of field margins & good hedges cannot be over-emphasised in ensuring that a fair balance is achieved. Best practice is that at least 10% of farmland should be managed for wildlife & biodiversity habitats.
High quality mixed species hedges are a real asset on any farm. If they are managed for wildlife & cut in rotation only once every three years, berries & fruit will be a vital source of food for birds & some mammals during the winter, as well as providing safe nesting sites & shelter.
Under the E.F.S. scheme, 6m rough grass field margins growing high tussocky grass provide cover for ground nesting birds & “forms” for our Irish Hares. It is also well documented that insect predators control aphids harmful to crops adjacent or near to rough grass margins, thereby reducing the need for the use of insecticides. Of which, I have completely eliminated use on my farm.
These margins will require invasive brambles & shrubs to be cut back after a few years & care should be taken to cut 6” or so high to leave a good grass tilth, harbouring both mice & shrews, which in turn provides valuable food for our Barn Owls!
Also under the E.F.S. scheme, 6m wide cultivated arable field margins are easy to provide & maintain; simply cultivate after ploughing & leave untreated & unseeded. They provide ideal open dry habitat beside a dense crop, ideal for chicks of ground nesting birds, foraging on insects in the vital first weeks of their life, as well as providing a useful nutrient & spray buffer to field edges & watercourses.
The “hungry gap” for wildlife on the farm in winter is well documented & responsible for high mortality rates. In January & February crop residues such as stubble have been well picked over & on many farms there is virtually no natural food left for resident or migrant birds. The planting of wild bird feed cover plots can make a huge difference. They consist of seed producing crops such as Oats & Triticale. Kale provides cover & food for invertebrates which in turn are sought out by many species of birds.
Some of these habitats are ideal for less productive parts of the farm so it’s a win-win for farmers & wildlife!
Finally, I defy any farmer not to feel satisfaction & pride when literally thousands of birds lift off his crop on a cold frosty morning!