Uncommonly good food

Ploughshare: Chagfood members agree that in a difficult growing season the members might get a smaller split of the produce.

Take farmers, distributors, fishermen and a few spreadsheets, throw them into the same pot and the results can be healthy. Lynne Davis shares the recipe.

In 2012 I left an unfulfilling job as a software engineer to retrain as a farmer. I packed up my life and moved to the Forest of Dean to begin an apprenticeship on a mixed organic farm. I was drawn to organic farming because I saw it as the most noble of professions: caring for the earth and helping people eat good food.

I expected the mucking out and the harvest days in the rain, but I didn’t expect the constant moral dilemmas. Do I sacrifice this field and put the cattle on in the wet? Is it better to plough and weed less, or risk using only the harrow and weed more? Do I break rotation and risk worm issues, or do I buy in extra hay? And how much meat should I even be producing? Caring for the earth was not as simple as it seemed.

Neither was helping people to eat good food. A huge amount of time was spent trying to build a brand, market to the right people, find customers and complete sales. Even more time was spent dealing with complaining customers. “There was a slug in my salad bag”. “The joint was smaller than expected.” “Why did my order not arrive in time?” In part this is just the nature of running a business. In part, this speaks to one type of customer that local food businesses attract.

For some who go to the extra effort to buy food from small, independent producers, food has become a moral minefield – a minefield of certifications, ingredient lists and images of faux-farmers. Six years ago it seemed as though the majority of customers were buying from a sense of middle-class activism. Now increasingly I have become aware that everyone, regardless of income, wants to feed their family good quality food they can trust. Every one of us needs food every day. Yet each reported scandal or disease outbreak reminds us that within our food systems are opaque systems and processes that bare no relation to our understanding of how our food is produced.

“I expected the mucking out and the harvest days in the rain, but I didn’t expect the constant moral dilemmas.”

This unmet need for affordable transparency, trust and connection has created opportunities. Across the country innovators are seeking to break the mould and find novel ways of organising food distribution. The guiding principle to their approach is to make good food from sustainable farms accessible to everyone. Their methodology – involve people. This is the growing sector of commons-based food enterprise.

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