The Local Food Chain

SUFFOLK is one of the most important food producing areas in Britain but it is surprising how few people realise this. For instance, at certain times of year East Suffolk provides supermarkets with 50% of the nation’s potatoes.

Suffolk has always been a larder for London and beyond, providing cereals, vegetables, poultry, pigs, cattle and lamb. More recently, it has become a food destination, renowned for its locally produced food and drink. The many local food outlets provide the seedbed for new enterprises, with successful businesses providing the opportunity for other new business start-ups. At the same time, the increasing variety and quality of food available in shops, pubs, restaurants, hotels and bed-and-breakfasts brings more visitors and more money into Suffolk. The recent Aldeburgh Food and Drink Festival generated over �1m spend in the area.

As well as consumers, the local food chain benefits the economy, the environment and the farmers and growers, who are at the heart of it. It may well have an even more important part to play in the future, providing Suffolk and East Anglia with a security of food supply when our existing overseas sources may no longer be available.

National surveys show that most shoppers would like to buy more local food and that they want to know where their food comes from, valuing freshness, taste and a desire to support their local farmers. This interest has benefited Suffolk’s food and farming industry, all the way up the food chain, from producer to retailer and the hospitality sector. Shoppers can find numerous Suffolk foods in the farm shops, butchers, delis and village shops, with meat at the butchers and local fresh fruit vegetables almost always cheaper than the supermarket.

The supermarkets recognise this trend and both Waitrose and the East of England Co-operative Society have developed robust local food sourcing initiatives, with the Co-op using 109 local suppliers. But they are the exception among the multiple retailers.

The local food chain is an employment multiplier. Farmers, producers, processors, retailers, all provide new jobs. Another benefit is that young people from farming families are able to stay on the land, helping their parents develop their products. Outstanding examples of this are the Strachans from Rendham who produce Marybelle dairy products and the Hardinghams of Alder Tree Fruit Cream Ices near Needham Market. There are many others.

Farm shops and other retailers, such as butchers, village shops and delis, are important as well. The Youngmans at Grange Farm Shop in Hasketon employ 20 people in their shop and orchard, while the Pauls at the Suffolk Food Hall in Wherstead employ 63, including six butchers. These are just two examples – there are over 40 farm shops in Suffolk, so the contribution that they and other independent retailers make providing jobs in difficult times is substantial. Shops also indirectly support other jobs in the food-chain: Grange Farm buys from 114 local suppliers, 41 of whom are farmers and 14 of these are livestock farmers. Suffolk Food Hall has a similar number of local suppliers, including 20 small farms providing some of the best beef in Suffolk.

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Another plus is that the local food chain supports the environment. Less fossil fuel is used from field to plate, there is less packaging and less waste. Cattle and sheep also travel shorter distances to slaughter, improving animal welfare and increasing the narrow margins for livestock producers. Grazing animals are important because they help maintain our grassland landscapes in the river valleys, heaths and marshes. These lands have to be grazed (or they would revert to a tangled wilderness of thistles, nettles, ragwort and briars) and the animals which graze them have to have an economic use, almost always by being sold into the local market as quality meat.

There is a definite trend in most sectors for farmers to sell produce locally. For livestock farms or small, traditional, mixed farms or fruit farms, selling locally, often with a branded product, can be a life-line. Diapers, a family-owned poultry business near Haughley, own three chicken farms and work with six other farms. This provides the advantage of scale, enabling them to supply quality poultry to over 50 butchers in 17 counties, including London.

Another example is the large-scale organic vegetable grower, Home Farm Nacton, where they see many benefits in local marketing, such as dealing with people you know and gaining a better margin.

So, local marketing is going from strength to strength at many different levels, bringing advantages to everyone from grower to customer. But what are the long-term advantages?

We are approaching a time of crisis in food supply. Local food may provide part of the solution.

The world population is growing by 75 million a year. By 2050 the world is going to need 100% more water, 70% more energy and 70% more food. But the natural resources, such as water, oil, phosphates, potash and land, are becoming depleted. China, well aware of the impending crisis, is buying up huge tracts of agricultural land in Africa, South America and South-East Asia.

In this situation, Britain is weak. We have the second highest food price inflation in Europe, because we are one of the biggest importers of food in the developed world (40%, compared with 27% in 1995).

We are also very dependent on the highly efficient long distance supply chains and centralised distribution systems devised by the supermarkets. Although they have brought many benefits, they are fragile, threatened by rising fuel costs, extreme weather, competition for scarce natural resources and political instability. Future food shortages are a real possibility. Food is no longer stored by the supermarkets or the distribution centres. As was said in 2008, ‘we are nine meals from chaos’ – meaning that there are only three days of food supply in the system.

Our food supply and distribution systems are going to have to change. I am sure that local food production and distribution will be part of the answer. We are fortunate that Suffolk County Council is working with a third-party independent organisation to set up a Food Hub. We are also very fortunate that Suffolk already has such a vibrant and expanding local food chain which I am sure will play an important part in safeguarding our future.