Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Interview - Spring Lane Farm Shop (2008)

One way of reducing the amount of fossil fuels that are used in transporting fod produce is to buy fruit and vegetable that are grown locally. In fact, wouldn’t it be great if we all had a local farm from which we could buy fresh vegetables – ideally so fresh that sometimes they were only picked from the fields a few hours earlier? Wouldn’t it be even better if this produce was cheaper that buying from supermarkets? And wouldn’t it be the best if this allowed us to offer farmers an alternative to selling their produce to the powerful supermarket chains?

Happily, many of us can do exactly this by buying from “farm shops”. These are shops that often sell produce from an attached farm, or provide an outlet to a number of local farmers. You can find them in the yellow pages, or on the internet.

To find out more about Farm Shops, BFTF interviewed Mark Spencer, who is the owner of the “Spring Lane Farm Shop” in Nottingham.

The interview came about because the work colleague of the programme presenter used to take orders for produce from work colleagues prior to a visit to the farm shop.
This was almost the perfect scenario as she the farm shop was close to her house and she was coming to work anyway so there was no extra mileage incurred (there is no point in trying to prevent emissions from food lorries by making a 30mile round trip to a farm shop for some eggs and broccoli).

One of the attractions of Spring Lane Farm shop was the free range eggs that they offered. We asked Mark about the ethos that he had regarding the treatment of the chickens laying these eggs. . .

“At the end of the day you know I think to be a farmer you have to love animals don’t you, and we just really treat our animals as we think they’d like to be treated. . . it’s our responsibility to look after them and to make sure their life is as enjoyable as it can be”

Mark went on to describe the conditions that the chickens lived under. . .
“Basically there’s a thousand chickens in one shed and when I tell you that shed is actually on wheels. At night time we lock them in so that they’re safe from foxes, and then they’re let out every morning. They’re fed a diet pretty much of solely cereal based food. We also feed them a little bit of like a granite grit, which assists with their digestive system and helps them break down the food to give a stronger egg shell, and then once a year we sort of move (the shed) across the field because they actually graze the grass all around the shed immediately, they can strip that part of the field almost back to the soil so we move the shed a bit further, so that they’re again surrounded by grass and we can then reseed the bit where the shed was and keep them moving like that. They’ve got five acres to walk in. That’s actually twice what they’re meant to have under the Soil Association free range egg rules if you like. It just happened that was the size of the field that we’ve got so they’ve got five acres for a thousand chickens to walk round in, and they do actually make use of all of that field. It’s quite humorous to watch them, when you let them out in the morning they’ll literally spread themselves right across that field to all four corners. There is a lot of space for them to walk round. The expression ‘pecking order’ is very much applied to chickens and they will fight if you keep them too close together, that they bully each other and they’ll fight over food so the more space you can give them the more room you give to their, to the chickens if you like at the bottom of the pecking order to escape their bullies. There are strict rules for egg production and if you label your egg as free range you have to have met those criteria. They have to have so many square metres per chicken to range in, and also the sheds have to have so much room for the birds to sleep in at night and to, and so much space for each nest box as well, so any of those eggs that are for sale in the supermarket will meet the strict criteria but they may have been produced on a larger scale, in a shed that maybe has 20,000 birds in it rather than a shed like mine that’s got 1,000."

After this fascinating snippet of information, BFTF went on to ask about the pricing and freshness of his eggs. . .
Well if I were producing for a supermarket they’d probably be paying me between 60 and 80 pence a dozen. So I think at the moment our large in the shop are £1.40 a dozen, which is obviously cheaper than the supermarket sell them for, but that’s obviously a much bigger premium to me as a producer, and I mean at the moment we’re pretty much running hand to mouth with the eggs. Certainly at the weekend we’re selling the eggs collected on that day. Some of them are still warm as they’re going into the boxes”

BFTF had heard that Spring Lane Farm Shop even took returned egg boxes and reused them, again cutting down on the environmental impact of the farm:
“We do, we have to buy them so we’re always grateful for anybody that brings the egg boxes back. The ones that we sell obviously are all papier mâché biodegradable, but there’s no harm in recycling the egg boxes and using them again and we appreciate those customers that take the trouble to bring them back”

Mark then talked about the differences between British and foreign eggs. .
“I would say is that those eggs produced in the UK will be of higher quality than those that you buy that were imported. You’d be astounded at the amount of food in general that is imported into this country, and shipped from all over Europe and, particularly Eastern Europe now as the EU gets bigger, a lot of food products coming from Eastern Europe."

Moving on to the vegetable side of the operation, Mark gave an outline of the produce that the ho pstocked:
“ Well at the moment we’re producing all of the potatoes that go through the shop as well as quite a few cauliflowers, brussels sprouts, broccoli, and my next door neighbour he’s doing all the carrots, parsnips, leeks and some cabbage for us as well. There’s a fair spread of vegetables there which are grown within three miles of the shop I would have thought."

Homing in on potatoes, we mentioned that the potatoes from the shop seemed to be cheaper and better tasting that those of supermarkets – and allowed us to support the local farmers. .
"Well, it’s very kind of you to say that. We do grow varieties that are better in taste than looks. Maybe some of the supermarkets do focus on how good they look on the shelves rather than how nice they taste on the plate. We’ve tended to stick to the older varieties that we think are better tasting, and our customers have got used to."
We asked Mark about this policy on use of pesticides, given the current popularity of organic produce. . .
“The truth is chemicals are very expensive and we really don’t like to use anything that we haven’t got to use and if there are other methods of weed control for example, doing that mechanically, we much prefer to do that than we would use a chemical to kill weeds. And again obviously I’ve got children myself and they’re eating the vegetables I’m growing, so it’s quite important to us that they’re the best quality that we can produce. We don’t do organic ourselves, but I think there is a market out there for organic produce. You do get a much lower yield (with organic produce) and it’s whether the consumer is willing to pay the extra price for receiving food that’s not produced using any chemicals, and again that’ll be right for some people but not for others. That’s for consumers I suppose to choose isn’t it. We very much try and grow it with the minimum use of pesticides that we can, but we do use pesticides.

BFTF asked Mark about so-called “food miles” and what he thought of them . .
“It’s becoming more of an issue, certainly, when you think about the environment, and environmental schemes. I always think it’s quite strange that this government want to pay me to plant trees and hedgerows and to take grass out of production so I don’t have as much beef, but they then allow Brazilian farmers for example to take up the rainforests and then to spend aviation fuel shipping beef over to this country. We’re very keen to source everything as locally as we can if we can’t do it ourselves, not only from a point of view of the distances travelled, but the nearer (the farm) is to the shop the fresher the produce becomes, and the taste, of course, is depreciating the longer it is since they were picked.”

We then asked Mark about his feelings about supermarkets, particularly as they have such a large market share and have been accused of bullying farmers. We wanted to know if he had seen any benefits to working outside the supermarket system?
“We don’t produce anything for supermarkets at all. They tend to deal with much larger farmers than ourselves and we wouldn’t be able to compete, it wouldn’t be economic for us to grow the produce we do and to accept what they’d be willing to pay us. Really you ought to speak to someone who is producing for a supermarket. I suppose they’re a business and they’re there to make money, but it sometimes feels as though they like to squeeze every last penny out of the producer and take the largest margin that they can. Of course some of these producers have put in a lot of capital to get their businesses to a size that’s viable, and they’ve borrowed a large amount of money, they’re almost trapped because they can’t go to another supermarket because there are clauses in the contracts that stop them dealing with other people, so they (supermarkets) do have tremendous power."

We asked Mark what his advice to consumers would be in terms of where they bought their produce from. . .
“The one thing I would say to all consumers really is that they should think long and hard where they source their food from and if they go to a supermarket then ask that supermarket where the food is coming from. Is it produced in the UK and how far has it come from? What they purchase has a direct impact on the countryside around them."

Finally, Mark gave a comment that brought home the human dimension of farm shops as opposed to supermarkets when he said:
“That’s the beauty of going to a farm shop in that you often get to speak to the chap that’s grown the produce.”

BFTF certainly learnt a lot from Mark’s comments and we hope that you, dear reader, have also found something of interest in his comments.

Be a “Locavore”
In a similar vein to some of the points mentioned in Marks comments, the “New Scientist” magazine recently ran an article on being a “locavore”. Far from being some kind of extinct retile, “locavore” is a term coined up some two years ago by Californian Jessica Prentice (author of Full Moon Feast: Food and the Hunger for Connection). She and some friends decided to only spend a month only eating food that had produced within 100 miles of San Francisco. On her website she challenged others to do the same. Many took up the challenge and some are still going!
In fact, eating only locally produced produce has become so popular that “locavore” was voted Word of the Year by the New Oxford American Dictionary.
The New Scientist articles looked at the reductions in a persons “carbon footprint” that could be achieved by eating locally produced food and found that Western Europeans are each responsible for emitting around 12 tonnes of CO2 per year. Of this flying contributes about 1.6tonnes (showing how a few hours at 30,000ft can have a disproportionate effect on one “footprint”) while food accounts for about 2 tonnes.

The CO2 contribution from food comes not just from its transport but also from its growing (manufacture of pesticides, heating of greenhouses etc) and processing (converting lettuces into bags of “salad leaves” etc).

Eating only food that was grown locally and not processed or packaged saved around 0.7tonnes of CO2 from being released into the atmosphere.

Opting for locally grown organic produce (or going vegan) can save another tonne or so. So just by changing the way you buy your food you can reduce your carbon footprint by OVER 80% !! Now, that’s what I call an incentive!

This post is based on a BFTF interview with Andy on Radio Dawn 107.6FM in 2008, which was also subsequently used as the basis for an article in the Invitation Magazine.

Interview kindly transcribed by Ali Marsden.

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