In July 2000 Anthony Davison started BigBarn at Alconbury Weston
in Huntingdon in Cambridgeshire. Now the enterprise is thriving – and showing how farmers and consumers together can start to reclaim the £120 billion that Britons now spend each year in supermarkets
BigBarn is a Social Enterprise with a mission to reconnect consumers with producers of food and drink, and encourage trade and communication — essentially to get people out of the supermarket and shopping locally. I started it more than eleven years ago when I realised that the onions we grew on the family farm and sold to a packer for £130 per tonne were on the Tesco shelf two days later for the equivalent of £850 per tonne. I realised that the retailers and the supply chain were, and still are, taking the bulk of the retail price, giving neither the producers, nor the consumers, a fair deal. I wanted to help my fellow farmers get a better deal at a time when consumers said they wanted local food, perceived to be ‘safe’ after the BSE, Foot-and-Mouth, and Salmonella food scares. Safe, because ‘local’ means ‘accountable’. A local farmer will not poison his local customers.
I thought, perhaps naively, that setting up a business to connect consumers with producers would be a great success. I realised that supermarkets were brilliant at supplying a huge range of goods under one roof, but I didn’t realise how good they were at retaining customer loyalty. What looked like a simple task of displaying the facts about local food and watching people change to buying local has felt more like fighting a never-decreasing troop of killer zombies. And I often get the impression that many supermarket customers have fallen into a zombie like mind set, buying salty ready meals and enticed by offers, to buy things they don’t need, nor can afford. Many consumers seem to be almost addicted to the supermarket — their offers and their loyalty schemes.
Likewise, I thought, farmers should go for the best price. But selling locally means low volume, changing from growing crops in bulk, as cheaply as possible, to gearing up for retailing, with a shop, fittings and staff. I myself come from a fifth generation farming family – my brother and cousins now farm 3,500 acres on three sites, and we have another 2,000 farmed under contract, with wheat, rape, peas, and 100 acres of onions. But the family farm won’t find many local customers wanting 20 tonnes of onions every delivery.
I branched out from the family farm to study accountancy but I didn’t take to it and so had a variety of other jobs (including underwear salesman). But at the age of 39 I decided to study for an MBA and as part of the course I looked at the feasibility of setting up a farm shop. The Cambridgeshire Council would not let me set up the shop but the research showed that there was a need for an organisation to connect consumers with their local producers. I began to feel I had a successful business when I won a DEFRA grant.
When I started BigBarn the Local Food industry was growing, with Farmers’ Markets popping up everywhere and many farm shops attracting large numbers of customers. It seemed that consumers enjoyed getting the story of the food and supporting their local farmers and community. So BigBarn was set up to help catalyse the growth of an alternative, LOCAL food industry, centred around producers, farmers’ markets, farm shops and small retailers. Our strategy has been to provide the definitive database of local producers and retailers, and then promote them via Bigbarn.co.uk. This has now grown so that we also provide the data to as many other websites as possible.
Since then, BigBarn has been my obsession. We now have 7,000 local food businesses on our map, of which 418 have also set up online shops in an Amazon-type MarketPlace. Despite its name, BigBarn is a small operation — run by just 2.5 people working on the office computer and from home; yet 4,000-plus people visit the site every day and 23,000 have registered to receive our emailed post code specific newsletter. Each local food business is displayed as an icon on a map. Consumers just have to type in their post code and click on each icon to find out more. Different icons denote the type of shop, coloured green or red — meaning whether you have to visit, or can buy online for a delivery. A ‘£’ flag means cheaper than the supermarket. A ‘rosette’ flag means you can Grow your own produce and the shop will sell it for you – which we call ‘Crop for the Shop’. Some shops also have a film icon meaning they have a video to tell their ‘story’.
The BigBarn data and MarketPlace is also on 88 other, partner websites, driving more ‘hits’ to each business and giving them an incentive to use their password to add to, and update their details on a regular basis. To win greater Buy-in of our producer customers we need more big websites to take our content and to make sure that they are aware of what we offer. To win consumers away from the supermarket we need to raise awareness of price, quality and convenience. We also need to help spread the word – on some of the fantastic initiatives that are now starting up or already well in train throughout the country. These include Incredible Edible Todmorden where the whole town has become one big veg patch and food is free! They also include our Crop for the Shop scheme where consumers can join the food industry and become producers, selling their crop to local shops.
We have just raised capital through Crowd Funding and improvements will be made to the site in early 2012. We have recently converted to a Community Interest Company, and so we are sending a clear statement to both our groups of customers – producers and consumers — that everything we do is for them, and that profits will be reinvested for their interest. We want the enterprise to grow as a CIC and hence to catalyse the growth of the local food industry in general – diverting a large proportion of the £120 billion spent in supermarkets to farmers and local communities.
We are very positive about the growth of a LOCAL food industry. Eighty per cent of people still say they want to buy local food – which now is cheaper and better. Now we need to capitalise on this success and get greater ‘Buy in’ from both our sets of customers – both the producers and the consumers. We want to achieve some of the ‘customer loyalty’ supermarkets have attracted, but without the zombiefication. We could potentially see a large slice of the £120 billion spent with UK supermarkets every year redirected to farmers and communities, with massive social benefits for all.
So please spread the word! To be kept up to date on BigBarn click http://localfoodnews.wordpress.com/ or register for our newsletter http://www.bigbarn.co.uk/register Or once you have looked at your local food map email us with any errors or omissions firstname.lastname@example.org
BigBarn CIC (Social Enterprise)
01480 890 970
07831 77 77 66