How Short Food Supply Chains Are Making Communities Closer And The Economy Healthier

Short food supply chains have gained momentum in promoting local cooperation and development. Yet, fostering them is not easy. See how a European project aims to bridge the gap between small producers and agri-food giants through a holistic approach

By Luca Vitali

On a crisp autumn morning we leisurely make our way to the quaint farmers market in the nearby square. Though it’s still early, the market is bustling with an eclectic mix of shoppers, tourists, flaneurs and vendors, all stalls offering an enticing array of products sourced from local farms a few kilometres away. From free-range eggs to artisanal cheese, colourful vegetables to succulent fruit, golden honey to aromatic herbs, everything is beautifully fresh. And local. What may seem like a fantasy to some is in fact an increasingly palpable reality for many Europeans. This phenomenon, aptly coined as the “Short Food Supply Chain” (SFSC), has gained considerable momentum in recent years.

Technically, and as defined by the European Union, an SFSC is a supply chain involving a limited number of economic operators, committed to cooperation, local economic development, and maintaining transparent, close, geographical and social relations between food producers, processors and consumers. In other words, in many countries it is possible to choose between traditional distribution channels (such as supermarkets) and the opportunity to order and pick up seasonal fruit and vegetable boxes at local producers or distributors. The latter choice would mean the distance between the produce on your table and the farm it comes from is shorter. Also, in the present post-Covid era, SFSCs are being promoted by governments, civil society and consumer groups in many EU countries as a means for building more inclusive, resilient and sustainable food systems.

But what about looking at the process from the perspective of those who produce and wish to sell locally? How can they reach consumers directly, bypassing one or more intermediaries? How can they acquire the necessary skills to streamline the producer-to-consumer process? Where can they seek guidance? How can they get in touch with other producers who share the same needs?

An answer many of these questions is offered by COREnet, an EU-funded project to support the development of SFSCs through public and private advisors who help producers through IT-enabled peer-to-peer learning. This interaction of advisors, farmers and consumers generates a holistic approach that enables local producers to achieve not just a bigger market share but also to have a greener market impact. In this case, the term holism is employed in the broader sense of achieving a final outcome which, in terms of quality, surpasses the sum of its single components.

Farmers interested in SFSC initiatives and in selling their produce directly to consumers are actually encouraged by the EU’s rural development policy, and their numbers have increased in recent years. Still the obstacles can be daunting.

In the Netherlands, a country at the forefront of rapidly developing short food supply chains, Sylvester stands out as an esteemed cheese-maker. In the morning, he brings his craft directly to the farms in his mobile cheese “factory”, a vehicle he uses to travel across the country.

This has earned him the nickname of “Kaas Baas”, the Cheese Boss. On-site visits allow Sylvester to create his signature Gouda cheese, capturing the essence of the land and its produce, while fostering a deeper connection between producers and consumers.

He uses the local raw milk, which means that for each farm a slightly different flavour of cheese is produced despite following the same traditional Dutch recipe. He now has about 20 clients. Working with animals and in nature is what makes him passionate. He inherited his deep interest in farming from his grandfather, and he dreams of raising his own dairy cows one day. Trained in organic farming, Sylvester’s been on the road for two years now and he’s vastly benefitted from his advisor from COREnet. Jan Willem van der Schans, an authority in SFSCs, has set up a six-day “Master Class” that, among other things, teaches would-be farmers to draw up a business plan. Sylvester wasn’t offered capital, which was collected through friends and family, but skills and a business model to work on. The training also offered the opportunity to compare his experience with that of other trainees and to receive tips on how to interact with his clients. He was also given advice on how to make his work more professional and cost-efficient, and how to charge a fair price that reflects the high quality of his organic cheese. As coaching is provided whenever needed, Sylvester knows he can always reach out as his business develops, especially if becoming a livestock farmer is his next dream.

Another example of how external managerial guidance from EU experts can ultimately boost short food supply chains, is Marc’s story, a farmer based in the north of Belgium, near Antwerp. Forty years ago, after inheriting his farm and livestock from his family, he became a farmer. Due to a life-changing accident, he reinvented his business in 2015 and turned to his long-cherished dream: produce organic ice-cream.

COREnet advisor Patrick Pasgang’s contribution was paramount in producing the change, bringing in fundamental management skills and contributing to decision-making. Long-term advice has been offered on the farm organisation: “When we introduced our strategic 10-year plan in 2015, the idea of an entire family relying solely on a short food supply chain seemed unrealistic. However, after implementing it in phases over the past eight years, we have been able to demonstrate its feasibility and effectiveness.” Each single member was eventually able to find their own role: producing, marketing, social media, tourism, sales etc. Information was also shared on how to obtain subsidies and be up-to-date with the legislation.

Through the contribution of external advisors, a group of ice-cream producers from all over the country has also been created. Meetings and workshops are now regularly organised for them to improve the workflow, boost networking and help each other.

Agro-ecology is also a concept Marc and his family have been introduced to. They test new crops and herbs, and produce fodder for their cattle without resorting to the use of industrial fertilizers. The aim is to create a safer product. The family’s most recent project is farm-tourism, where they open their farm to visitors who can set up their tents in the field, observe the animals, and immerse themselves in nature.

Much like advisors, who try to link transformational change (in infrastructure, organisation, marketing strategy etc.) and the daily life of farm operations, experts believe that the short food cycle chain has the potential to play a bridging role in the ongoing divide between urban and rural communities.

Furthermore, van der Schans believes that short food supply chains in Europe require an intermediate dimension between major agro-industrial conglomerates and individual farmers. This is where SFSC belongs, serving as a link between small-scale homemade production and the agri-food giants. “There’s a real need to connect farmers with this intermediate infrastructure. Once this link has been established, momentum is created, and short supply chains can expand. »

And finally, one of the challenges ahead will be to establish an ecosystem that assists farmers in their personal endeavours. For instance, dairy farmers who are always busy tending to livestock, and consequently lack the time to make their own cheese, should be able to rely on a comprehensive ecosystem that provides cheese-making services. Professionals like Sylvester and his mobile cheese “factory” would be more than willing to offer such services.