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The Better Food Traders team at Oxford Real Farming Conference 2022

Tash: Project Leader

Back in Autumn 2021 when the Better Food Traders team saw the chance of getting a big gang of our member businesses together at the Oxford Real Farming conference, to share experience and expertise with other enterprises, I was truly delighted.  At our annual gathering the longing to meet in person and enjoy the rejuvenation of spending time together in reality, not just virtually, was tangible. So the work of organising a large enough place to stay and a meal out for the Better Food Traders who were part of our sessions was all part of the joy, and reminded me of what many of us were looking forward to.  At a conference, it’s the time together outside the main sessions that bring the connections and personal relationships that make for a vibrant network, and that’s why Better Food Traders exists.  

When, in mid December, the inevitable email arrived telling us that ORFC 2022 was moving online, I was sadly disappointed. Our sessions would suffer – how were we going to organise a matchmaking session in the virtual zone?  But more importantly, how could we build securely on the tentative relationships begun online?  How could people develop lasting trust and understanding?  Letting go of our initial plans, and with a shared willingness to have a go, we transferred our sessions online, edited our publicity and hoped for the best.

Being a delegate at ORFC guarantees an interest in agroecological food systems, the differences emerge in the detail of getting to where we want to go. With the Better Food Traders mission of supporting ethical food retail, it was reassuring to see how many sessions had been scheduled that focussed on trade and the supply chain.  The Better Food Traders sessions included From Survive to Thrive – three multi-million turnover BFT member business directors talking us through their journeys from vision to success, Matchmaking advice sessions (See Nicki, BFT network manager’s, report below) and we presented at CAWRs session about assessing impact in food and farming (more on that from Hattie, BFT data manager). But these were only a few of the many sessions focussing on routes to market for agroecologically produced food.  One of these, Beyond the Farmgate, featured a presentation from BFT founder Julie Brown, showing how Growing Communities’ growth created opportunities for a whole range of organic farms in the South of England.  A stand-out session for me came from the inspiring enterprises at Wakelyns organic agroforestry farm showing brilliantly how a range of retail and other creative business ventures worked collaboratively across one farm site.

And on those relationships that I had been hoping to help build. Well, although the advice sessions we ran did contain an element of chaos, the overriding impression I came away with was of people’s generosity in sharing their experiences. Running these sessions showed me that although not quite the same, it is possible to transmit warmth and kindness through screens. Better Food Trader members are not only ethical, but both off-line and online, they – we – can be wise and compassionate companions to each other.  

 

Nicki: Better Food Traders Network Manager

It’s Thursday morning at the online Oxford Real Farming Conference. The Better Food Traders staff team are grappling with feelings that they have perhaps not felt for some time. Nerves ahead of a matchmaking session… 

An intrepid group of Better Food Trader members are offering up their time and expertise to anyone running or thinking of running an alternative ethical food outfit. But would anyone turn up? Would people connect?  Would the sudden switch to an online session due to an Omicron wave prove the undoing of a carefully planned face to face session? This had never been tried before at the ORFC.

 Fortunately, in addition to some cheeky and impactful BFT advertising, Julie (Growing Communities, London), Reuben (Locavore, Glasgow) and Phil (Better Food, Bristol) had done an expert job in promoting the session through their Survive to Thrive talk that morning. With Reuben’s “We need a generation of agroecological shopkeepers” ringing in their ears, people started to arrive. 

 Supply chain challenges and marketing were hot topics. Some people came for specific advice, some came just to hear what the issues are for ethical food retailers. Someone who runs a series of ethical food markets in Copenhagen was delighted to find we had our own organic market expert available for a chat. And when the advisors weren’t talking with attendees, we had a chance to catch up with each other. The feedback from both matchmaking sessions was positive. With a few tweaks we realise it’s a great format for people to share a lot of expertise in a short space of time and we’ll be going forward with this approach to peer advice in the future.

 

Hattie – Better Food Traders Data Manager

Why would 240 people be interested in data collection for ethical food retail?

Tash and I were discombobulated to be greeted by that surprisingly large number of attendees when we logged in to deliver our pre-conference workshop. But the audience weren’t just there to hear about Better Food Traders.  Alongside representatives from the Sustainable Food Trust, the Global Farm Metric, the Real Farming Trust and Coventry University’s Centre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience, we presented Better Food Traders impact assessment, with the metrics and data we’ve derived from the Better Food Traders’ nine principles

Impact assessment might sound like a dry topic to some, but these 240 were enthusiastic participants! We were especially delighted to share our work at Better Food Traders with the wider audience brought by the co-presenters. 

At Better Food Traders, we collect information from our ethical food retailer members, enabling campaigners and researchers to more easily access data about this part of the food supply chain; a story less familiar to us than that of the ethical producer. Better Food Traders is looking closely at this data to draw useful comparisons with the mainstream food retail sector in order to provide content for political campaigns with our partner organisations. And equally importantly, we want to use our platform to encourage organisations working in sustainable and ethical food to establish good monitoring practices so that they can provide evidence for the positive change that their work creates. This information strengthens the whole movement for agroecology and sustainable food systems.

 

Kate – Marketing Manager

“We need a generation of agroecological shopkeepers, not just growers” Reuben Chesters, Better Food Trader member – Locavore at ORFC.

This quote says it all for me. This year’s ORFC gave the Better Food Trader network the platform to join the agroecological discussion and firmly place retail as a fundamental part of the transition. 

The Better Food Traders all gathered to encourage, inspire and instigate conversations around how we can ensure a brighter future for food production. The only way to build a sustainable and resilient food system is to localise production and distribution, and this means building connections. By linking up a network of ethical food retailers we can offer environmentally focused farmers an alternative route to market. So they don’t have to compromise their values in order to sell their produce to supermarkets for rock-bottom prices.

ORFC Founder Ruth West explains the conference’s cross-pollinating effect, “Farmers and scientists and activists and others came together in support of real farming and new relationships and initiatives were formed… the sessions reflect [this] diversity, ranging from the intricacies of soil microbiology to new kinds of marketing, setting up a micro-dairy to the value of introducing mob grazing and agroforestry to the farm… It is this diversity of participants and interests and concerns that we believe keeps ORFC alive and growing”. 

It’s sometimes hard to directly account for the power of networking events like ORFC or a network like the Better Food Traders but ultimately collaboration—combining resources and knowledge—is the only way we can drive a food system revolution. 

 

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