The virtues of farm-to-table systems


The “farm-to-table” approach cuts down the number of intermediaries between food producers and consumers: it is good for the environment and for the long-term sustainability of local farming.


Buying organic groceries is an environmentally-friendly deed, but it can sometimes seem a little absurd – or even counter-productive – to purchase avocados that have been brought by plane from Kenya, or oranges that have come all the way from Morocco. The answer to that, of course, is to buy seasonal fruit and vegetables, and also to take advantage of local production and distribution systems. In this respect, there are options that combine social and environmental benefits and are increasingly accessible to consumers. These options can be grouped together under the generic term “farm-to-table.” It might be the simplest thing you have ever heard of – and might truly change your impact on agriculture, the people who produce your food and the environment.

Local beehives and global networks

“Farm-to-table” is a simple concept: reducing the number of intermediaries between food producers and consumers by encouraging local food production and distribution. This is not a new idea: instead of buying your groceries in hypermarkets, which sometimes involves half a dozen intermediaries between the producer and your shopping cart, you could always hit the food market and get in touch with the small producers in your region – if you are lucky enough to live in an area with a strong local farming system. But the Internet has considerably accelerated the movement, and made it easier for busy city dwellers who do not have time to go to the market or meet up with producers in the countryside.

In France, since 2013, the Internet platform La Ruche qui dit oui has been connecting local producers and consumers. Consumers create their online profile, join a “ruche” (beehive – there are over 520 all over the country), and shop online every week. Once a week, they go to their ruche to pick up their cart and meet the producers themselves. Not everything that the Ruche qui dit oui sells is organic, but many of the products at least meet integrated farming standards, and since they are all local there is little environmental cost linked to transportation. Products are healthy and seasonal, and the social aspect is a definite plus. The system also benefits the producers: they are the ones who set the prices, and they will only sell if the orders have reached the critical mass they need for the scheme to be profitable.

On average, buying from a supermarket means that 80% of the buying price goes to the intermediaries, and only 20% to the producer. The “farm-to-table” approach enables the exact opposite: 80% of the price goes to the farmer, and the rest to the local ruche’s manager (10%) and to La Ruche qui dit oui’s global infrastructure (10%). This makes for a business that provides a decent living, and one that is more sustainable in the long run than a charity. It also means that producers can secure their incomes, and have an alternative to selling their produce at detrimentally low prices to big buying hubs with a monopoly. In France, a few years ago, a pear producer “killed” his farm because he had no other option than to sell his fruit below production cost.

In Australia, a similar project called the Open Food Network (OFN) is now launching its crowdfunding campaign. The network already operates in Australia, and is working on introducing pilots into the UK, Canada, Europe and the US. The OFN is a free and open source project aimed at supporting diverse food enterprises, making it easy to access local, sustainable food,” they write on their website. Unlike La Ruche qui dit oui, it is a charity and non-for-profit organisation designed to facilitate the connection between consumers and existing small sellers. But the spirit is broadly similar. They seek to “reimagine the way we connect with food, and even to “take back control of our food.” Through the platform, producers can present themselves and their work, set their own prices and offer a variety of payment and delivery methods, while consumers can choose their products online (see the demo here).

The icing on the cake is that both projects are open to everyone: if there are no ruches close to where you live, you can start up one yourself (La Ruche qui dit oui is preparing for its European launch any time now); and if you want to continue with the good work of the OFN, you can easily replicate the model where you live, since all its software programmes are open source.

Photo ©  cdrin