Supplying schools and hospitals with quality local food could offer UK farmers a new outlet for their produce, English Farming and Food Partnerships claims.

Speaking at an EFFP-organised Routes to Market event in Lancashire on Wednesday 28 March, north-west coordinator Adrian Luckham told 50 farmers and food processors there was untapped potential in food supply to the public sector.

“The public sector is worth £2bn every year,” he said. “It’s a very reliable customer and a good credit risk. If you succeeded in winning a tender, contracts can last for two, three or four years. That gives you time to devote your business around a reliable source of cash-flow and demand is less likely to be affected by an economic downturn.”

Unlocking the opportunity wouldn’t be easy, he acknowledged, but he said it was vital for farmers to work together.

“Reliability of supply is expected. If you let them down you pay the price. Doing it as an individual can be difficult.”

While there appeared to be a growing trend to cut out stages in the food chain, Mr Luckham warned that direct supply can be fraught with problems, and farmers would be well advised to consider working closely with food processors.

“Direct supply carries a risk of extra cost in distribution, health and safety, and of course the farmer becomes an extra supplier – public bodies want to deal with a single point of contact.”

To help farmers, EFFP will be launching an educational package Share to Supply – the next development in its collaboration Share to Farm programme which already includes Share to Grow Combinable Crops and Share to Milk.

The organisation is currently filming six case studies “all doing something different about how to get into local schools and hospitals”.

The Share to Supply module will be available in June, Mr Luckham confirmed.

Milk contracts preventing local expansion

Milk contracts that require dairy farmers to supply all their milk to a single buyer are stifling the development of local brands, Lancashire farmer John Towers believes.

Farming near Lancaster, Mr Towers supplies local businesses with milk and cream processed from his dairy herd.

But to maintain reliable supply, he sometimes has to top up with other farmers’ milk. And that presents him with a problem.

“I can’t buy conventionally produced milk from my neighbours because all conventional contracts require producers to supply all their milk to the single buyer.”

That means Mr Towers has to seek supply from organic dairy farmers from further away as their contracts have greater flexibility.

“Conventional contracts are a barrier to locally supplied milk. My brand is Lune Valley Milk. I’d rather buy local milk to top up what I can’t produce. I’d rather support my neighbours. It’d be better for the food miles.” 

Routes to market

Jim Hodge and Kevin Beaty – both speakers at the EFFP event – have successfully created brands around local food: The former in high quality pies, and the latter in hard and soft cheeses.

To find out more about their businesses take a look at The Pie Mill and The Cumberland Dairy

Mr Hodge’s business will feature in one of the six Share to Supply video case studies.