Direct sales by local farmers can help slay yucky-tasting greens

I have a big problem with vegetables that I eat in restaurants – and that’s if you can find them anyway. The restaurants I go to – and these are nothing fancy let me assure you – are really a mixed bag when it comes to vegetables.

Most of them have no vegetables on their menu – can you believe it? Now I’m not talking about salads. I’m talking about real vegetables such as carrots, green beans pumpkin and so on. Another chain restaurant serves its “vegetables” but they are heavily spiked with sugar and cream sauce (if I really wanted to eat flour I would ask for it). Others drown their “roasted” vegetables in so much heavy oil that you wonder the impact on the environment let alone your stomach.

One restaurant I sometimes go to specially prepares steamed vegetables for me but I suspect these vegetables are bought from the supermarket alongside because they taste so bland.

Make no mistake, I enjoy my fish, chicken and steaks but vegetables can be the most delicious accoutrement to a meal. In the past year I got an opportunity to taste real fresh vegetables grown by a small-scale farmer in Stellenbosch. We picked our own vegetables and they were prepared about three hours later and the taste was unbelievable. This was known as a “sufficient” lunch as the hotel which is fanatical about sustainability donated the amount it would have cost us for lunch to a local charity.

I know a couple of local farmers producing organic crops but they find it extremely difficult to sell to supermarkets and restaurants. And we know why. The price of the produce is high because of the economies of scale as well as the different production methods to large-scale farming.

Wouldn’t it be innovative for local farmers to supply local restaurants and shops direct with fresh vegetables and other produce? We would then know that we are eating “fresh from the farm” even if we have to pay a little bit extra.

Is this just a pipe dream? Or could it be become a reality?

Well, the “Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development” (which is a serious academic journal, not something to be scoffed at) researched local farmers who sell direct to local markets. Yes, the farmers reported that selling direct means extra costs such as for marketing, transport and deliveries.

But by going direct to the chefs in restaurants and the owners of local businesses, they were able to identify the need for fresh locally-produced produce. Business relationships were struck and now they are selling direct to retail food services.

There’s a lesson or two in this. One is that farmers first have to start talking to the chefs in restaurants. These are the true customers. The other is that farmers have never really marketed their produce. For some farmers creating a website is a mountain to climb. Although marketing tools like this can be bridged with hiring innovative youngsters who know the technology who can set up something very quickly (an extremely gifted and innovative young web entrepreneur set up this website very quickly and for less than you think) – I can provide his name on request).

But the biggest conclusion of the study was that it’s difficult for farmers to break through the status quo and see local opportunities. For too long, local farmers have merely pushed their produce on to supermarkets and the fresh produce market where greengrocers buy their fruit and vegetables because it is the path of least resistance. The study confirmed that farmers who give 100% commitment to direct selling are more successful than those who just give it a try.

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