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Sowing the Seeds: Growing your Sustainable Food Business Network

Growing your small ethical food company is an honourable but challenging thing. You’re going up against a profit-driven corporate food system that’s existed since the 1940s and just keeps growing. So, how can an ethical food startup take on the supermarket giants to bring healthy, sustainable and equitable food to its local communities? Strength in numbers; become part of a sustainable food business network!

You’ll no doubt have a lot of questions about how to get your business running smoothly and manage your finances, how to spread the word through marketing and storytelling, and how to grow. And, for this kind of guidance, you can’t beat the mentorship of a big sister—or better still, a community of “good shepherds” that are already out there living the reality of ethical food trading.  

These progressive retailers are more than happy to share their pearls of wisdom since they know that the only way to subvert the current food system is to give the alternative greater visibility and reach. And events like the Oxford Real Farming Conference (ORFC) offer a place for farmers, ethical food retailers, activists and policy-makers to get together, share problems and find solutions that bring us a step closer to creating a sustainable food system.  

We’ll be hosting a Better Food Traders Matchmaking event at the ORFCs 2022 online event on January 6th and 7th (more on this later), and some of our traders will be there to encourage, inspire and instigate conversations around how we can ensure a brighter future for food production. Here are some of the other ways networking can help us achieve that.   

 

Knowledge sharing  

Radical food retailers walk the path less trodden, which means they have more hurdles to overcome than those who follow convention. Networking events provide small businesses access to one-on-one discussions with those who’ve already cracked it, as well as workshops and panels that offer practical advice on all things planet-friendly farming. What’s more, other ethical food enterprises can offer region-specific advice for those earlier on in their journey. Traders operating out in rural areas will likely face a very different set of challenges to those setting up urban and peri-urban initiatives. So, by getting to know food retailers of different shapes, sizes and locational demographics, you can tap knowledge and resources tailored to your situation.   

 

Expanding reach and increasing visibility   

Half the battle with setting up an independent business is getting the word out. With access to a community of seasoned experts, you have the opportunity to learn how they did it. And there’s a genuine sense of camaraderie and support amongst organisations that are working towards a common good. Here at Better Food Traders, for example, we offer our members mentorship from experienced ethical food retailers, access to learning and development tools, and a platform for boosting the visibility of their small business. Individual organisations are bolstered by connection with others that share the same ethos, and this boosts credibility and extends their influence beyond what would have been possible if they’d gone it alone.   

 

Making connections 

The only way to build a sustainable and resilient food system is to localise production and distribution, and this means building connections within your region. By linking up with a network of local growers and producers, ethical food retailers 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. Big networking events also offer the opportunity to develop relationships with experts who aren’t necessarily directly involved in growing or selling food. 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”. 

 

Better Food Traders Matchmaking 

Collaboration—combining resources and knowledge—is the only way we can drive a food system revolution. So, on January 6th and 7th we’re hosting an online space at the ORFC where we’ll be doing a bit of Better Food Traders Matchmaking with some of our experts. You can drop in digitally, between 11 am and 12:30 pm, and we’ll be there to offer advice on your small food business, finding direct routes to market, onboarding local suppliers, negotiating with councils and far more besides. There’ll also be a Survive to Thrive session between 9 and 10.30 am on Thurs 6th, where the leaders of some of our hugely successful BFT organisations will be sharing their warts-and-all journeys.

Come and say hi! We need to band together if we’re to make a real difference to the future of our food and the health of our planet and its people.  

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