Vending machines for the Sunday roast, fish to your door and salads grown in car parks – British farmers and food producers are finding new ways to get their produce to the table during lockdown, changes that may yield benefits long after restrictions ease.
Many UK farmers have been hard hit by the coronavirus crisis, despite the strong demand for fresh food. Before the lockdown, half of all food and drink was consumed outside the home, and switching from supplying big catering companies and distributors has been proving difficult.
But some farmers and food entrepreneurs are finding now is their time to shine, and the environmental benefits – and the profits – may encourage more to follow suit.
Two years ago Neil Stephen, from Inverurie, Aberdeenshire, invested in self-service vending machines dispensing everything from farmhouse cheese and shortbread (baked by his mother), to joints of meat, whole chickens and fresh fruit and vegetables.
He was inspired by his grandfather who, in the late 1970s, used to leave a wheelbarrow at the gates of the family farm filled with turnips and cabbages, and an honesty box for people to pay.
Now Stephen’s investment is paying off, as people are attracted to a hygienic system where the goods are neatly packaged in portions in a refrigerated unit, behind glass doors. They punch in the number, pay by card and the windows open for them to collect the goods.
Sales at Thorneybank Farm Shop are up fivefold, Stephen reports. “We were rushed off our feet. It’s worked phenomenally, it’s been stratospheric.”
The shop sells produce from neighbouring farmers, too, with asparagus and strawberries coming from six miles away, and eggs and dairy from three miles down the road. They can make better profit margins than they would selling to a big supermarket, without the hassle of door-to-door deliveries. The shop has a strong social media presence, and shoppers come from nearby Turriff town, while the city of Aberdeen is about 30 miles away.
Fishing is another industry hard hit by the Covid-19 crisis. In normal times, most of Britain’s catch is destined for overseas markets, from China to Spain, where the species commonly caught in UK waters appeal to consumers’ tastes. People in the UK have proved reluctant to move beyond cod, haddock and tuna, which mostly has to be imported.
The government has now announced GBP1m for English fishermen to set up new ways to sell their catch and find local markets. There are already schemes for distributing fresh-caught fish directly, such as SoleShare in London and Call4Fish, a service that operates from Berwickshire to Cornwall.
Food campaigners hope these services, where the fish on offer depends on what is caught by small boats, will encourage a more sustainable way of fishing, as consumers experiment with species less overfished than cod that might not previously have found a market.
One Londoner, Sebastien Sainsbury used to work in the investment banks that tower over Canary Wharf in London. Now he has a company, Plate to Crate, growing salad and other leafy greens in hydroponic towers in shipping containers, stacked up in air conditioned units under heat lamps with conditions carefully monitored.
The containers seem more like labs than farms, with workers kitted out in protective gear, from boot shields to hairnets, to prevent pests getting in. As a result, the lettuce, kale, pak choi and herbs are free from pesticides, insecticides and herbicides, and water use is 96% lower than in fields, with wastewater being used on local lawns.
The first harvest is due in May and, once all of the units are fully up and running, there could be 12 harvests a year, producing 15 to 18 tonnes from this site. Another will be producing soon in London’s Elephant and Castle, where a development of 3,000 homes will receive salad weekly from containers.
Sainsbury believes this is the future of fresh produce for fussy Londoners. “Younger people are more focused on where their food comes from, how fresh it is, what’s in it. This coronavirus crisis is an opportunity for us all to become aware of what we are eating.”