"Why do you talk about short supply chains? You promote small and uncompetitive farms that cater to the richest consumers". In 2012 the former EU commissioner for Agriculture, Dacian Cioloş, said he often received this objection.
Over the last years, short food supply chains have gained ground in Europe. Selling directly has been seen by farmers as an exit strategy to withstand the crisis of the agriculture sector, while allowing people to buy local and healthier produce.
This is all the more true in countries hit by major food scandals, such as The Netherlands, where the Government officially admitted that “these incidents have undermined public confidence in the food industry”.
Jan van den Broek is a Dutch organic farmer from Hilvarenbeek, who sells Angus and Blond d'Aquitaine meat, and vegetables. He started his activity in 1987. "After 27 years, my family and I decided to supply everything directly to consumers in our farm shop. As a result, we improved the profit margins in our wallet. And now we can share our story better” he says.
"Many people want to know what the biologically certified system entails. What I tell my customers is that my livestock is not being reared, literally. They can graze in nature reserves. The calves drink with their mothers and stay with them all summer, and thus have enough time to grow. That’s why they naturally get a greater resistance and better health, and there’s no need for antibiotics. This means tastier meat. It’s the same with vegetables. If you grow them very aggressively with artificial fertilisers, you also have less tasty products.”
One of challenges of short supply chains is that single producers have a limited offer. And people don’t want to clock up kilometres shopping around from different farmers. That’s why Van der Broek sells organic products from other colleagues as well, such as cheese, bakeries and beer.
This is a common solution to farms that have switched to short supply chains. Networking is crucial.
Corné van Roessel, a farmer from the same region, holds 150 bulls in Goirle. He also owns 30 ha of corn, grass, grain - to feed his animals - and potatoes. “We have a number of partner companies. For example, we purchase pigs and chickens directly from farmers and poulterers and pick up vegetables from a vegetable grower of the region in order to offer a complete range in our shop,” he says.
He serves 600 to 800 customers a week. E-commerce is also possible through their internet platform. Additionally, Van Roessel delivers meat to restaurants (mostly through a wholesaler of regional products) and other farm shops.
Ten years ago they owned 200 bulls and 200 goats, and sold to the grocery with low or negative profit margins. Now, even with fewer animals and extra costs for delivering and picking-up products, he makes enough money for a sustainable business. "Now that I do everything all by myself, there is work for about six full-time employees. We have a turnover of over one million euros of which 60% shop and 40% wholesale. A small price increase has no effect, but offers more possibilities.”
Van Roessel underlines the freshness of his products. “Every Thursday an animal goes to the slaughterhouse. On Friday we can pick it up again and it’s cut up on Monday afternoon by our butchers. We then let our meat lie for two to three weeks, in a kind of maturing phase, to get it more tender, nicer and tastier. Because we sell so much, we can determine when to offer a product to our customers.”
In Belgium, another country with many cases of food contamination - from the dioxin affair in 1999 to the recent scandal over rotten meat – there is greater awareness about the importance of tracing food to known local producers.
Short food supply chains don't mean only small farms. Big companies too have switched to this system in recent years. An example is Franken Agro in Mol, a large Belgian farm run by the same family for three generations. They grow potatoes (450 ha) and vegetables, and they cut them in their plant, to broaden their offer to clients. They are also an important supplier of French fries to local fast-food outlets.
Potato storage - Franken Agro - Farm in Mol, Belgium
Niels Stilman, who works with the Franken family, explains: "A person can place an order up a certain time. We definitely do not work with stock, everything is always freshly picked. So if a person orders 100 packages, we pick 100 packages and our customer can be sure that they are in our store the following morning. By doing this, we can guarantee the absolute freshness of our products.”
Stilman is the driving force behind their label “Fresh from the farm”. It’s a successful networking experience, delivering fresh produce with sustainable costs without asking people to come to their store.
“As we believe in short food supply chains, we created the label in 2016. Why are we so unique? We ourselves are a farm which has gathered other farmers together, so that we can offer a very large range of products. There is no point in just offering one item to our customers; that would not be profitable at all. So we selected a range of 800 local, unique products, from meat to dairy. This is actually our strength: a farm that supports other farmers in all enterprise branches and ensures that the products are sold. That is the short food supply chain at its best,” he says.
“The farmers who work with the label get paid a market-based price. That means that we will never buy anything below cost price, and the farmers themselves define their cost price. It is worthwhile to mention that a market-based price does not mean that we pay any price. We sit down with the farmers and consider what the possibilities are and how we can include them in our system. It’s a well-founded system and the relationship is open when it comes to discussing prices, purchases and sales,” Stilman adds.
These experiences from the Netherlands and Belgium show that there is a diversity of short supply chains. European farmers are testing solutions to make this business sustainable and meet the rising demand for fresh and healthy food. In this context, a EU project, called SKIN, is studying innovative and successful practices across the continent to present replicable models and boost “from field to plate” projects.
By Loredana Pianta
Cover photo: ’t Schop - Organic farm - Hilvarenbeek, The Netherlands
12 July 2018