Thoughts on supermarkets from the ploughed field
Rob George - 23 April 2014
I was out to dinner with friends a couple of weeks ago and one of them, Luke Hasell asked if I could do some ploughing as he was so busy with all his other work. You may have heard of some of Luke's other work – as well as being one of the founders of the Community Farm he's also a Soil Association licensee and runs Eat Drink Bristol Fashion and Yurt Lush. I agreed to get out of the office and off my squeaky chair and help him out.
The following Thursday I was driving down to the Community Farm in the Chew Valley just south of Bristol. I have to say (and I’m reminded each time I do it) taking a large 5 furrow plough on the road among commuters is not a particularly pleasant experience but I arrived without any problems despite the fog.
Once I’d adjusted the plough a few times and the fog had lifted so that I could see far enough to get a straight line, the furrows began to turn nicely and created a pretty good tilth to work with, despite a legacy of compaction from many years of maize growing. It was a long way away from me sitting at my desk in the Soil Association office as a Technical manager, but equally it was great to go out and speak to the guys and girls on the ground while I was having my lunch, a ploughmans obviously! (A dish that was invented by the cheese board in the 1950’s apparently.)
On the radio the business news was interviewing a leading supermarket. This was in reaction to falls in profits and subsequently a fall in the share price. The presenter was asking questions, why is this happening? Was it pressure from Aldi and Lidl? Competition from internet shopping? Was it the end of the large out of town supermarkets in their current form? The presenter made the point that food shopping had been made easy, but, that it had become boring, homogenised and ‘plastic’, with pretty much everything in a packet at a time when we're meant to be reducing packaging.
As I watched the Community Farm workers preparing vegetable beds, with the pleasant view of Chew Lake as a backdrop, it occurred to me that something in our present system needs to change somewhere. Often we’re told supermarkets supply what people demand and no doubt that’s true to some extent, but I've never known anyone to go into any supermarket and demand tomatoes between 33–38mm precisely, or mushrooms with no ‘feathering’ on. On the flip side though, nor do I want to buy a soft bendy carrot. There must be a sensible middle ground to be had and I think this is something that urgently needs looking at.
The show moved from specifications of fruit and vegetables and food waste to packaging. As I ploughed up and down the field I recalled seeing in my local supermarket two portobello mushrooms in plastic cartons, and six orange coloured, flavourless tomatoes of perfect roundness and size in a plastic tray. Is that really necessary? For a start it’s more recycling for me to do.
The presenter also discussed the ideas of new customer experiences to reverse the slide in profits like having a coffee shop in the middle of the store. Fair enough if that’s what you want to do but if it were me I’d just like to get on with it rather than sip coffee in what is essentially a hangar. I can do that at the train station. Though I do say that in jest and I understand what they’re trying to do.
Supermarkets have provided a vast range of products my Nan would only have dreamt of in the 40’s and 50’s (she used to tell me this) but things clearly need to change in what they do and how they do it. The pressure from internet food sales which is open to anyone who wants to sell this way, the pressure from new discount stores and a growing awareness of food and food waste will clearly drive the change, I hope also towards more local production. I’m sure the shift will be successful for some supermarkets, but also looking out at the Community Farm I hoped more and more people would source locally and engage more in their food. I am sure this will be the case. You can find out more about the Community Farm here.
Rob George is a Technical manager for Soil Association Certification