Putting the culture into agriculture

Column 26-3-20 SM Farm

Since the horsemeat scandal in 2013, consumer concern for food safety and traceability has become a key factor guiding their purchasing decisions.

It has taken time for retailers to rebuild the trust of consumers with ‘country of origin labelling’ and ‘quality assurance certifications’ on packaging offering consumer’s reassurance of the quality and source of the produce they buy.

Seven years on, consumers continue to demand to know more about where their food comes from, how it has been produced and everything in between.

There is no doubt today’s consumer is more engaged than ever with the food they choose to buy and eat, with some moving beyond simply being a consumer to becoming a food citizen.

These consumers (or should I say citizens) wish to actively participate in society and act collectively to support the development of a more sustainable food system.

The Food Ethics Council defines Food Citizenship as “the idea that we are not just consumers at the end of the food chain, but participants in the food system as a whole”.

These citizens are prime candidates to help change the face of farming in the future.

Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) is a concept whereby farmers and consumers work in partnership. This can operate either on a privately owned farm, or where shared ownership is involved.

One model, known as Teikei, originating in Japan, involves small-scale volunteer-based farming that sees people buy directly from the farmer – it’s described as “food with the farmer’s face on it”.

CSA is seen as an innovative way for others to access high quality, fresh food and connect with farms and farmers in the process by getting involved in the management and production of farm operations.

While the concept of CSA is not commonplace here in Northern Ireland, a handful of these schemes are starting to pop up across the country.

For example, CSA Vegetable Box Schemes from the Helen’s Bay Hahu Organics (formerly Pure Rare Organics), Azora in Hillsborough offering a full range of organic seasonal fruit and vegetables, and Jubilee Farm, based in Larne, County Antrim.

Founded by Dr Jonny Hanson (Managing Director), Jubilee Farm is a prime example of the CSA model as it combines farming with caring for the community and education.

Hanson stated: “Farming can be a lonely and risky profession but community supported farming allows you to share the risks and rewards by reconnecting to the community. It’s a guaranteed source of income at retail prices rather than an uncertain income at wholesale prices.”

Not coming from a farming background meant it was difficult for Jonny to access his own land and with limited financial backing to set up on his own the CSA model it allowed him to achieve a lifelong goal – to be a farmer.

After growing up in a rural community in County Monaghan and then later in Malawi, he gained a PhD in conservation and farming then went on to pursue a career in education and fundraising. However, he soon decided to change direction and pursue farming full time.

Hanson describes CSA as a game-changer within the world of farming, as “it goes beyond food as a consumer choice, it is about food citizenship which shares the risks, rewards and responsibilities of food production – connecting the consumer directly with the producer and cutting out the middle man”.

Community members pay a number of instalments prior to getting the produce as this investment allows the farmer to buy the seeds, fertiliser, equipment, etc, to grow or rear the produce.

Jubilee Farm currently offers four products which consumers buy a subscription to for the season: veggie boxes, pork, goats and Christmas birds (geese and turkey).

However, Hanson explains that they are very much still learning about how to expand the farm and are keen to increase support from the local community.

The ethos of the farm is to go beyond simply producing food but to use the farm to improve the well-being of society through caring for the community and conservation encouraging consumers to be environmental and agricultural stewards.

For example, the farm currently piloted work with refugees and asylum seekers to help them integrate into society and improve their basic farming skills.

As the coronavirus has shown, there are challenges and drawbacks to globalisation.

The events of the past few weeks will only see demand for products to be produced locally grow.

Community Supported Agriculture can play a role in creating a hyper-local food system.

n For more information about Jubilee Farm please see www.jubilee.coop/

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