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

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06 May 2014 09:26

I don't know what the problem is, supermarkets supply what I need when I need it. Sure they also leave me with a lot of packaging, but they wouldn't do this if people like me hadn't complained about bruised fruit in the past. Business supplies what it thinks the customers want, so complaining about supermarkets is pointless, you ought to complain about the shoppers habits not the sellers methods.

Organic farmer
24 April 2014 21:29

Shelley, Keats Byron………. Rob George. If you plough as well as you write the Community Farm should not have much to worry about!

A recent organic veg box
24 April 2014 21:25

I totally accept that people are busy – but going direct and buying a box could hardly be more easy. You don’t even need to leave your house. You just get on-line or on the phone and order what you want when you want it. No driving through the rush hour, no finding a coin for the trolley or weighing up the conundrum of waiting in the queue or using the self-check out – can I get all this stuff on those scales!? The truth is that people just don’t like change and are creatures of habit. So people keep trudging down the aisles of the retailers buying what they have always bought. We all know what they say about doing the same thing, getting the same result and madness – so make the change!

24 April 2014 20:28

Recently I was shopping for avocados.  I often find the non-organic ones are too green and never ripen, or when they do they're stringy but OK for making guacamole.  So this time I looked over at the organic ones and  to my absolute horror each one was individually wrapped, each sitting in small cardboard trays wrapped in plastic with a protective atmosphere.  Is this really organic?

Dilly Dreamer
24 April 2014 17:06

Great article , I agree with Rob. the supermarkets have their place but it has created our artificial life style because that is what it is, artificial! We must support as many independent suppliers as we are able if we want them to continue and buy great produce. I have used supermarkets since the late sixties and we have all been drawn in to the convenience and selection they offer.I still use them , I need to but I refuse to buy out of season tasteless "fresh" products.My passion is food ---fresh food. How many children have plucked an egg straight from the hens nest or a mushroom from a field or a blackberry from a hedgerow? Not many I guess! My one complaint is in my experience, producers are not always open When the public need them (after office hours and all day Saturday)Who wants melon from abroad which have been grown near/around raw sewerage?Or any other foodstuffs for that matter! We the public, need educating and what better way than radio/tv regular shows to promote healthy shopping and eating. Meanwhile, let's shop locally and support our farmers and producers and think organic and hopefully our local producers will continue to expand. We are what we eat.

James McKinley
24 April 2014 13:33

Hello, I agree with this. But what can be done? To quote the famed philosopher Maldini "hoc esse quod in quocumque die comederitis" So does that make me a uniform vegetable?

A busy working mum
24 April 2014 13:07

Thank you for a very interesting article. I agree with your thoughts. Unfortunately the reality is that people have come to expect any fruit & veg all year round with the convenience of getting all their groceries under one roof. This has become the norm. It will be a real challenge to change the way the average consumer shops. Most people don't have the time to obtain their food from multiple places. Many towns don't have enough easy (or free) parking next to the local shops. Therefore it's also the supermarkets that need to change. If they can decentralise some of their fruit & veg distribution, and let each store manage the sale of local goods then that would be a step in the right direction. Looking forward to your next article.

Paolo Maldini
24 April 2014 12:37

Thanks, really liked your article. My experience here in Italy, there are very good quality local foods you can buy and we take the time shop for these but I think it is a different tradition. Of course perhaps our supermarkets are not so good! Packaging is necessary for supermarkets (damaged fruit = loss of profit) but I'd rather left back some damaged fruit and have a better taste.

Doctor Opinion
24 April 2014 11:10

I'm not sure that supermarkets supply what people want, this is an argument used to justify vast profits and the policy of bullying suppliers, the same argument is used throughout the business world to justify whatever it is they need to justify that week. The human animal is basically lazy and looks for the easiest solution to their need. I'm hungry I want food, oh look a McDonalds. So the solution to the supermarket issue is simple the human race just needs to take on a fresh paradigm and think rather than give in to urges. Of course this will not happen, so what next? Learn to live with packaging? Or open everything in store and leave the mess to the retailer? Someone in a queue in front of me did that the other week, I thought what a pedantic person. So perhaps that isn't the answer. It could be that there is no answer, you can't please all the people all the time, currently the shareholders of the large supermarkets are very happy, that includes pension funds which we all buy into for security in our old age. If you could influence the shareholders you could affect policy and have the packaging removed, and buy the all the oddly shaped vegetables you like. So there you go one answer, invest a few billion in the supermarket and change them from within. Easy.

Tom H
24 April 2014 10:54

Agreed - I also like the idea of a food not being available if it's not in season, then really celebrating it's arrival when it is back on sale!It's not healthy to eat beans from Kenya in December when you live in the UK!

Brian Wilson
24 April 2014 08:12

I agree with your points, especially on flavourless tomatoes, strawberries, etc. What's even worse is where this stuff comes from. The working conditions in Spain and Italy where primarily illegal immigrants are working for a pittance under hectares of greenhouses. Also the water table in some of those areas is now non existent due to water pumps used for those greenhouses. How is this legal?

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