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The special appeal of food produced or grown locally has always been an important string in the bow of fine food retailers, but never has the demand for British-made food and drink been as high as it is today. In fact, data from the Farmer Favourability Survey, conducted by OnePoll, found that 73% of the public often or always looks specifically for British food when shopping – the highest figure recorded since the survey began in 2012. “We believe that customers see the quality of British products that farmers are producing and wish to support this,” explains NFU head of food chain Ruth Edge. “It is great to see our environmental and welfare credentials being recognised.”
The Farmer Favourability Survey also revealed unwavering support for British food and farming, as the record-breaking level reached at the start of the pandemic continued in 2021. This followed innovation group EIT Food’s largest ever TrustTracker study in June 2020, which was conducted with nearly 20,000 consumers across 18 European countries to measure trust in the food system. The survey revealed another positive outlook for farmers. “Of all players within the food sector, farmers were identified as the most trusted by the public, with two-thirds (67%) of European consumers reporting that they trust farmers compared to just 13% that do not,” says Saskia Nuijten, director of communication. The survey measures the key ‘trust determinants’ of competency, care and openness. “In 2020, 64% of respondents said they felt farmers have necessary skills, 69% said farmers are doing a good job and 55% said farmers are honest about their role in the food system. Overall, 56% also stated that they felt farmers act in the public interest; this rises to 72% in the UK,” Saskia says.
Sustain, the alliance for better food and farming, ran its own survey early on in the pandemic. “We found that more and more people were choosing to buy from better food traders, like farmers’ markets and independent shops,” said James Woodward, sustainable farming officer. “We believe that people want to buy more of their household produce from places that they can trust, have a relationship with and which are more ethical and sustainable. The climate and nature emergency, coupled with the Covid pandemic, has made people think more about their health and impact on the planet and each other,” he explains.
Anna Elliot, sales and marketing director at Eversfield Organic, which runs an e-commerce shop as well as several farm shops, agrees. “We believe consumers are becoming aware of where their food is coming from and actively trying to support locally sourced, British food and producers.” Anna says. “Importing food from different countries takes time and money, let alone costs to the environment. More consumers are choosing to support seasonal, British foods so that in turn they are supporting the environment, plus their neighbours who produce it.”
Sustainability has become a clear driver of the ‘Buy British’ mentality. Elise Friedman founded her shop The London Delicatessen in response to growing demand for local food. “The benefits of buying from independent makers, ranging from environmental friendliness to sheer quality, were just too good to pass up,” Elise says. She has found that customers have a keen desire to cut down on food waste. “It’s terribly wasteful and inefficient to ship food all over the world when you can literally grow it in your back garden. Add on to this the environmental cost of masses of plastic packaging and you have a green cause worth fighting for. It matters to our customers that food is sourced sustainably and that the packaging will not be a burden on the environment.”
Far more than a trend, the sustainability movement has the power to boost demand for locally produced goods dramatically. “We expect the local shopping trend to continue as sustainability issues gain more traction and lower commuting costs result in increased disposable income, which many will choose to spend on food and drink,” says Kate Rosser, insight analyst at the Local Data Company.
In today’s environment, how do farmers, producers and retailers alike continue to build trust with consumers? “While there is no indication that trust will decrease, there are important factors farmers need to consider if they want to maintain, or grow, trust from the UK public,” Saskia says. “When asked for suggestions about what each part of the food system could do specifically to help build trust, consumers said that farmers need to be more approachable and get closer to the public.
“People suggested public-facing web pages and more opportunities for them to visit or meet with farmers at markets could help,” she continues. Sustain’s James agrees that technology is providing new avenues for farmers. “Lots of farmers are using social media to bring their farm to the public and show what they are doing, and this is proving successful,” he says. “For example, Nikki Yoxall, who farms in Aberdeenshire, is doing amazing work in using social media and other tools to bring her farm to life and the public.”
Saskia says that consumers also want farms to provide more transparency and honesty about their processes and practices, and to show what they are doing to minimise negative impacts on animals and the environment. Anna agrees that traceability is a key way to build trust. “All our organic and wild meat and sustainable fish come with full traceability, right back to the farm where it was reared or the boat it was caught on. Farmer, breed and date of slaughter are all things we can find with the individual traceability numbers,” Anna explains. “In our farm shops, we like to display this information for customers to easily see, plus our shop teams are more than happy to talk customers through any transparency queries, too.”
While technology can provide new avenues for sharing information, it’s the message and story at the heart of this which will engage new consumers. “It’s important that the public understand that farmers are people with stories, while learning about where food comes from and how they can support a more sustainable farming future,” James says. “Farmers should look to build strong and open relationships with their surrounding communities and customers by proactively engaging with people and having conversation about farming and food,” he says. Open farm days and events are another great way to do this, with groups like LEAF (Linking Environment And Farming) offering a way to get local communities onto farms to learn about regenerative and agroecological farming. “John Pawsey has also done a great job at bringing his organic mixed farm to people to in a way that is engaging and exciting,” James says.
Independent retailers can also provide a space to engage consumers with producers. “Locally produced food ties people to a place and gives people a sense of belonging and something to relate to. Knowing there are people out there enjoying the same things as you is one of life’s little joys,” says Elise. Community is increasingly important to people, she says. “We hope we foster some of that spirit through providing a convenient marketplace for people to find what they need. A desire to look after the environment and be less dependent on faceless corporations will drive people to search out the best of what their locality has to offer.” The Local Data Company’s Kate agrees that consumers are choosing to shop locally to support their communities and enjoy a more personalised service. “Many have grown to value the personable experience, where shopkeepers know your name and are keen to chat, something that can’t be found shopping online or in the larger supermarkets.”
Anna, too, has found that physical retail shops are important for building trust with consumers. “As we’re primarily an online business, our farm shops have been key to growing and developing customer relationships, explaining the ethos of the business and the importance of organic in a face-to-face environment,” she explains. Events also help grow the local community feel. “We’re always putting on events in our farm shops, such as BBQs to try out our organic meat at our Tavistock Farm Shop and the Dartmoor Inn, Merrivale which also serves 100% organic food. Our Totnes Farm Shop and Café offers discounts and special offers for customers of the café to use in the shop as another ‘try before you buy’ experience. The purpose of such events is to get people back to their local high streets, trying locally sourced and ethically produced food to give back to the local economy and hopefully discover their new favourite organic produce while on their farm to fork journey.”
As more consumers take an interest in where their food comes, the opportunity for British producers and indie retailers is growing. “Smaller producers and farmers are seemingly becoming more trustworthy as they offer more transparency,” Anna says. “Lots of large-scale food suppliers are often ‘outed’ in the news for untrustworthy food production and communication. This may be why more people are turning to local farmers, farm shops and independent suppliers. Even with the growth of digital, word-of-mouth and personal relationships are still so important when it comes to purchasing decisions.
“We need that trust between farmers and consumers so we know that the money we are investing into such producers is going to a good cause.” By growing the trust between suppliers and consumers, the entire fine food and drink industry – and the consumers they serve – stands to benefit. As Anna concludes, “Trust is needed both ways to keep the very intricate circle of producing, selling and consumption going.”