SHOP TALK

If you really want to support local, spend local

By Louzel Lombard Steyn 15 May 2020

A typical farm box with seasonal veggies, some homegrown garlic, eggs, herbs & more. (Photo: Louzel Lombard Steyn)

There’s a major disconnect between our food producers and food consumers. There’s no reason why community-based food microcosms – individuals selling farm produce directly to consumers in their neighbouring town – can’t be successful across South Africa. Perhaps it’s time to reflect.

This is probably not a good time to write this… while millions of South Africans are queueing at major supermarket outlets to get their weekly supply of essential foods.

Or perhaps it is just the time to write it. All over social media, there are sentimental calls for us to #ShopLocal and support local businesses during this time. Around the world, people are thanking farmers and other essential workers and pledging their support. South Africans’ obsession with the supermarket culture, however, has altered our perception and expectations of what it means to really “support local”. Like many a tomato on a small dorpie supermarket shelf, we’ve been spoilt. Rotten.

Grocery prices in South Africa are over 86% lower compared to those in the UK, for example. This may be great for shoppers, but very, very scary for food producers – especially during the worst drought since records started in 1904, an unstable economy and ever-increasing minimum wages.

Yes, we’re a food-producing country, unlike the UK. But something doesn’t add up:

According to the latest Household Affordability Index showing how the price of food in South Africa has increased over the last year, the essential food basket (including milk, vegetables, chicken and beef) increased by 3.6% over the last year. In comparison, feed prices for these industries have soared. Prices for lucerne are up 32% more than last season, while the price for yellow corn has rallied 70% since the start of last year according to Fin24.

Essentially, farmers are paying more to produce food but getting marginally higher prices for their products, if at all. But sell they do, even at meagre rates, because they have no other option or means of income.

Sure, paying R150/kg for stewing beef in the shop is exorbitant. Not to mention R210/kg for lamb chops. Sadly, farmers are seeing only a fraction of that. According to Paul Collett from the Cradock District Agricultural Union, farmers get around 14c for every rand the consumer pays for food.

People with BComs will tell you that most of the money you pay is actually for packaging, wastage, transport and keeping cold chains until products hit the supermarket shelf. In countries where food is scarce and difficult to grow – and the logistics around keeping it fresh more complicated – this makes more sense. But South Africa is a fundamental food-producing country with ALL provinces growing and producing fine food.

As head of agribusiness research at Agbiz Wandile Sihlobo puts it: “We’re an agriculturally endowed country, generally a net exporter of agricultural and food products.” This means we’re not only self-reliant when it comes to producing food, but we’re also feeding the world. In South Africa, especially then, it seems reversed that supermarkets determine prices, while farmers only get a small percentage of what end-users pay for goods.

It’s complicated. But the bottom line is that there is a major disconnect between our food producers and food consumers. The producers, subject to seasonality and escalating production costs in a struggling economy, aren’t the primary beneficiaries of high consumer prices.

Perhaps it’s time to reflect.

In the midst of the current global pandemic, the topic of food production is a serious one. Experts say we are better off in South Africa because we are the ones growing food.

Proudly SA CEO Eustace Mashimbye says the Covid-19 crisis even creates an opportunity within the SA food production industry to be self-sustainable with much of its food production, as SA manufacturers have the capacity to meet current import levels. “SA imports about 30% of the poultry it consumes, for example, but local poultry farmers could meet 100% of consumption and create more jobs if this market share – currently in the hands of importers – was back with local producers,” Mashimbye says.

There it is again: support local.

So. What does it look like to support local? Simply, it means refusing the Brazilian frozen chicken and imported pasta and opting for the freshest-you-can-find, closest-to-the-source product. Even if it costs you more. Although… if you know where to shop, it won’t cost more.

Getting 14c to the rand is rough, Pauls tells author and journalist Julienne du Toit from KarooSpace. “But just above the halfway point lies a bargain for the farmer and the shopper. It means that producing quality and buying it can offer value to both parties,” he says. 

An interesting post-Covid-19 initiative unfolding in Cradock is a case in point. My mom, Lani, started her Farm Box idea because her farm garden goodies – usually used in her restaurant café in town – were going to waste. She started packing these fresh veggies, along with other essential goods like meat and bread, for sale in town.

Soon, other small suppliers of essential goods made contact. The local egg seller had no more offset for her business now that bakeries and delis had closed. She wondered whether Lani could include the eggs in the farm box. The dairy farmer’s wife from down the road had the same issue. Her cream was spoiling and she needed the extra income. The next week, they were part of the weekly farm box delivery of essential food.

Julie and her husband, author and photographer Chris Marais, were some of the first subscribers to the Lani Farmbox, as they called it. “It’s no small thing, and perhaps every platteland town should have such a win-win service – or several,” Julie wrote.

Adhering to this closest-to-the-source product principle also eliminates the big green “evils” – delivery trucks, waste and packaging that cost you AND the environment big money. 

There’s no reason why these community-based food microcosms won’t be successful across South Africa. We’re a farming country, first and foremost, dotted with outlying dorpies where logistics often fail. “Maybe this pandemic is pushing us back towards a normalisation of agriculture, a time of market gardens and farms (commercial and emerging) that supply what townspeople need,” Julie says. “Now seems an excellent time to focus on food security at a local level.”

“A normalisation of agriculture.” That’s it. That is what it means to #SupportLocal, especially when it comes to food. It’s to realise, reward and respect the value of good produce – rearing healthy animals and growing fruits and vegetables – as a fundamental part of life. And if you can practise some form of Farm to Table living and giving wherever you are, you’ll be a better citizen for it. DM/TGIFood

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