High on a hill on the outskirts of Glasgow, new life is taking root under the early summer sunshine. A pair large polytunnels filled with lush and verdant greens dominate a south-facing gently cultivated slope where overwintered garlic, kale and onions grow in a range of varieties and in huge quantities. They have recently been joined by lettuce and celery while yet more ground is being prepared – by hand - for the planting out of young courgette, beetroot, fennel, cucumber and bean plants, brought on in the protective polytunnel. Butterflies flit and bumblebees buzz in bucolic bliss.
Two young women sit outside their vintage caravan-cum-office on a makeshift table made of railway sleepers. They’re poring over a laptop and chatting urgently about planting/harvesting timetables and delivery deadlines. And so the idyllic scene becomes less la-la land than hard reality. This 2.5-acre market garden, now in its fourth growing season, is a serious business. For it represents the very backbone of Locavore Glasgow, Scotland’s first social enterprise supermarket whose aim is to provide a workable alternative to mainstream supermarkets - and to change our relationship with food for ever.
All produce grown here at Neilston market garden – which has now gained organic status from the Soil Association - goes for sale at the shop, into weekly veg delivery boxes, and to a growing network of restaurants, delis and cafes. Its two smaller urban growing spaces at Rouken Glen and at Queen’s Park help meet growing demand – though more growing space for more produce is desperately needed (more of which later).
Locavore Community Interest Company (CIC) Glasgow, to give it its official moniker, replaces the smaller shop in Nithsdale Road and is four times the size. The new site - the former Reo Stakis-owned Pandora pub on Victoria Road in the heart of Govanhill - now sells a wide range of fresh produce grown to organic and Fairtrade principles in addition to sustainably-sourced meat, bread, grocery, deli, dry cereals and laundry items – plus a few plants from the market garden. It is trialling the country’s first milk vending machine where customers can buy fresh organic milk from Mossgiel Farm in Ayrshire in recyclable glass bottles, saving something like 500 plastic bottles each week. Everything is sold largely unpackaged (the only plastic I spot is used for fresh greens, which I’m told reduces waste better than selling it loose, and keeps it fresher than paper bags do). It’s got an airy café selling home-made meals and snacks, has plans to sell organic wines and beers and to start ready-to-eat take-out meals and an organic catering service.
What makes Locavore stand out is that it has been crowdfunded to the impressive tune of £225,000 by loan stock from 65 individual customers and one private investor, who could choose to offer anything from £250 upwards over two to 10 years at an interest rate up to 6% - not bad, when even an average 3% is far higher than that currently offered by high street banks. Their money was match-funded by First Port Scotland and further support came from Zero Waste Scotland’s Waste Reduction Implementation Fund. Staff are paid at least Living Wage Foundation hourly rate of £8.75 and are given set hours and set shifts – another challenge to the supermarkets, some of whose younger employees are paid at the National Living Wage rate of £5.90 on zero hour contracts. The not-for-private profit organisation means money made on top of wages goes back into developing the business.
“We don’t have anyone getting paid very well, but then again we don’t have anyone getting paid badly,” says its 31-year-old founder Reuben Chesters. “We get a lot of really talented people working here who could get better paid jobs elsewhere.” (Continues ...)
These include (pictured below) two full-time growers Beth Ramsay, 28, of Lincolnshire, and Louis Kitchen, 31, of Yorkshire; part-time grower Floortje Brandsteder, 33, of the Netherlands, who gained her horticultural degree in the republic of Ireland; and volunteers Kirsty Gallery, 32, a horticulture student originally from Islay, and psychotherapist Srik Narayanan, 43, from London. Ramsay worked on a farm in Sweden, and Kitchen is a former riverfly biologist who went through Locavore Glasgow’s Grow the Growers programme.
They talk collectively of the importance of networking and sharing knowledge, and say younger farmers who have not inherited land but want to get into food production are keen not to replicate large-scale intensive farming. Ramsay also points out one of the benefits of working with a social enterprise like Locavore is that they can all have regular hours and combine urban with rural life, therefore avoiding the risks of isolation sometimes associated with conventional farming. Narayanan says he wants to learn commercial organic farming here so that he can establish his own business and start supplying Locavore. (Continues ...)
Chesters’ new venture officially opened its doors on May 18 but started operating a month before that – during which time it served 10,000 customers, three times above initial projections. In the year to April 2018, veg box delivery subscriptions to Glasgow, Edinburgh, Ayr, Dumbarton and Stirling have leapt from 370 to 800, and Chesters is now aiming for 1000 to include groceries and chilled vegan boxes.
All of which must surely be incredibly heartening for the man whose mission is to change the way we eat. After all, success has been six long years in the making.
Chesters’ unusual name is an amalgamation of the book entitled Reuben’s Corner, by Spike Mays, about a Suffolk boyhood close to where his parents lived when he was born; and the city where his father’s parents worked as servants. His father now lives in Livingston and works at the Almond Valley heritage centre and his mother, formerly a cook on the Steam Railway in Bo’ness, lives in Fife. His sister is manager of a Gap store in Belfast. “I guess we’re at opposite ends of the consumer spectrum,” he jokes.
The Langside resident originally hails from Bo’ness in West Lothian and studied environmental management at the Scottish Agricultural College (now SRUC). After college he moved to the USA to develop his interest in skateboarding, but experienced a “eureka” moment when he realised the contradiction in the beautiful environment he was living in and “the worse over-consumption I’d ever seen”. “That was what got me really interested in the environment and sustainable food systems,” he says. He arrived in Glasgow 10 years ago.
He reflects on progress so far: “We’ve proven that a small-scale organic market garden can be financially sustainable in the West of Scotland. Collectively our three growing sites produced over £30,000 at farm gate values, or around £58,000 at retail values, in 2017. Now we aim to considerably increase production and are confident we will double the value this year, thus further proving the financial viability and potential productivity of growing vegetables organically on a few acres in the West of Scotland.” (Continues ...)
One exception is a private individual in Renton, Alexandria, a graduate of the Grow the Growers scheme, who has polytunnels in her garden and is now selling her produce directly to Locavore. Three of the 2017 learner-growers have secured a short-term lease on some land on the South Side where they are setting up a growers’ cooperative. Other growers, however, are still looking for land.
Enlisting the help of allotment holders isn’t the ultimate answer, for although everyone has the right to request a local authority plot, food grown on allotments cannot be sold – though it can be bartered. “For that reason I’m not particularly encouraging allotment holders,” says Chesters. “I’d much rather encourage new growers and help get them set up as commercial food production businesses. That way more people get back in touch with the land and with food. But getting land is difficult.”
Yoghurt, soft fruits, rapeseed oil and butter produced to organic principles are other products he is finding it difficult to source in Scotland.
The Scottish Government has stated it wants to see more people, communities and local authorities to grow food of their own, and that in accordance with its Good Food Nation vision it is “firmly committed to promote and develop demand for locally-sourced and produced food and drink”. Under the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015, every local authority has a statutory duty to prepare - and keep under review - a Food Growing Strategy aimed at sustainable food production. Local authorities are expected to work with local communities to ensure that everyone who wants to produce food can access land to do so, be they allotments, community growing spaces or farmland. They are required to identify land suitable for allotment and community growing sites, and in their strategies they must describe how they intend to increase provision in its area where required.
The government’s consultation period ended in November 2017, and individual councils are now engaged in wider public consultation to prepare their guidelines, which must be published this summer. Their food growing strategies must be published by April 1, 2020.
Glasgow City Council’s strategic plan envisages the city being the most sustainable in Europe, and it says its Food Growing Strategy will contribute to this.
However, it is a far from straightforward process, as availability of land varies within each authority and it’s fair to say the large cities, including Edinburgh and Glasgow, are struggling to balance demand against more lucrative developments. On top of that, allotments are enshrined in law, while disused land is not.
Chesters fears the process is going too slowly and that there’s no guarantee of a better outcome for his business.
He says: “I worry that how each strategy will operate will be down to interpretation by the individual local authority. But there are really good things going on and I am hopeful.”
Ea O’Neill of GreenSpace Scotland, a charity and social enterprise that promotes good quality urban green space and which works with and for the Scottish Government, sympathises with Chesters’ misgivings: “The problem is that it’s not a case of one size fits all; each food growing strategy has to fit within its local context. The guidance leaves it up to local authorities for interpretation.”
But she adds: “It seems like a very long time before things will happen, but when the local authorities have their guidelines in place they will have a really useful document to work with. It’s definitely a really good step ”
However, she points out that there’s a vast difference between getting land and being able to grow food. “The skills and knowledge gap is the main barrier to growing food. There’s not much use in getting a piece of land if you don’t know how to use it. Filling that gap is a big, big job but there is a really great network of organisations and community groups working on that right now.”
It goes even beyond that. “Someone at our Aberdeen consultation asked, ‘why would anyone want to grow carrots when they’ve never eaten them?’,” says O’Neill.
“The general consensus is that although it’s painstaking and difficult, this is a really good first step.” (Continues...)
I wonder about the irony of setting up such an enterprise in Govanhill, in Southside Central ward, which has one of the highest levels of child poverty in Scotland and where only two-thirds of the adult population are earning; and of those in work, over half are in part-time employment. When I tweeted about the opening of the new Locavore shop (which was attended by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon in her role as local constituency MP for Govanhill), some of the comments around the price tags were pretty sharply worded.
One said: “I love Locavore, I really do! But almost £5 for around 8 asparagus tips? I mean, really?” while another wrote: “Far far far too pricey. Even though I agree with the sentiment, Govanhill doesn't seem to be the ideal place for such an enterprise. I don't think Lidl across the road will be shaking in their boots.” Someone else complained about the price of loose walnuts. The thread descended into petty insults – perhaps politically motivated – the politest of which was: “Stick your gold plated onions were the sun don’t shine.”
How does he respond to such criticism?
“We are trying to be more accessible, but some things won’t be cheap, such as organic meat and, yes, walnuts,” replies Reubens in his characteristically cautious manner. “Organic produce will struggle ever to be as cheap as conventional. There’s not much we can do about that. Organic is a slower and more labour-intensive way of production, and the opposite of intensive, big-scale farming.
“Food is cheap because we’re not paying the true cost of what it takes to produce it.
“Seeking to do things properly puts us at a disadvantage because the supermarkets are not working to that standard. We sell what local producers make and give them a fair price. We’re trying to stop that money disappearing out of the local economy.
At the moment, he says, money spent on food at grocery chains and supermarkets goes out of the local economy. “When you spend £1 at the supermarket, 14p stays in the hands of real people, through wages, and the rest is gone forever to the conglomerates like Unilever and so on. Here, our wages represent 20%-25% of turnover and the amounts spent on producers in Glasgow, and within a 50-mile radius of Glasgow, is 60p per £1.”
He argues that if every business were run like his and other social enterprises, then everyone could afford to buy what’s in them. We’d be healthier, the environment would be healthier and local economies would be healthier.
“More and more people want them [the supermarkets] to do what we’re doing. On the wholesale side we’re doing very well; that’s a sign that people want progressive retail.
“We want people to demand respect for growers and producers, as well as the environment, and for it to become normalised. Supermarkets are beginning to see that’s what people want and that they have to do better. The risk for us that they will replicate what we do and destroy us, but that seems a long way off.”
Back up in Neilston, he inspects the greens ready for picking, nipping out top growth and tasting as he goes. As I cast a final eye over the apparently happy scene it’s difficult not to admire what he is doing, and what he has achieved so far. It’s also difficult to discern his mood. Is he optimistic?
Stopping to admire his ringside view of the distant urban Glasgow sprawl, he collects his thoughts carefully.
“I’m really happy with it,” he says finally. “Lots of people are making a living from this, which is great but also a huge responsibility. On a day to day basis I don’t often get the chance to look up because I’m dealing with hurdles all the time. But every so often you get the chance to lift your head and realise that you’re actually really enjoying it and see that everything going in the right direction.”
(This article was first published in The Herald Magazine, July 7, 2018.
STOP PRESS (ha): The Glasgow-based Pakistani food writer, teacher and broadcaster Sumayya Usmani (@sumayyausmani and @kaleyardcs) is to run a pop-up community cookery school at the Locavore shop. Starting in the autumn, her classes will be open to all locals and will focus on the basics of home-cooking from scratch - how to make soup, bake bread, and so on - and basic kitchen skills such as how to chop veg. "I've been looking to do something like this in Glasgow for two years and have been waiting for the right time, which I think is now," she told me. Govanhill, on the South Side of the city, is one of the most ethnically diverse parts of Scotland, and is home to an estimated 42 different nationalities living within one square mile.
Usmani, who was born in Karachi, practised as a lawyer in London before becoming a full-time food writer and teacher. She moved to Glasgow with her young daughter two years ago and between her many other food-related commitments she hosts contemporary and traditional Pakistani cookery classes at cook schools around the UK, including London’s Divertimenti, Jericho Kitchen in Oxford and Demuths Cookery School in Bath. Now she feels she wants to give something back to her beloved adopted city.
"I absolutely adore Glasgow because it reminds me of Karachi," she said. "Glasgow is one of the most welcoming places in the world. It is so open-minded and has a lot of love and soul. I've been running around London and England doing my events there and in Ireland, and have built up many years' experience of teaching. But I feel really settled in Glasgow and I want to give something back. I do feel Locavore and me are on the same wavelength. I'll be teaching some really simple dishes and skills to help people from all walks of life how to feed their families well, using local, ethical and sustainably-sourced ingredients from Locavore. It won't be cheffy, it'll be about good home cooking.
"I'd also love to have migrants to the area come in and teach their own cuisines and impart their knowledge to us. After all, food is the glue that binds us all together. Cooking and eating together is one way of getting rid of all the negativity around immigration."