BUYING directly from farmers is a way to avoid putting money into the hands of supermarkets, whose price mark-ups are increasingly angering both shoppers and suppliers. (See both our news and letters pages).
A nationwide scheme exists where you can buy food directly from a local producer – or several – cutting out the middleman.
Provençal farmer Daniel Vuillon was inspired by the “veg box” scheme on a trip to the US in 2001 and decided to bring the simple idea to France. He set up a group in his village of Ollioules in the Var after seeing a worrying number of local farmers go out of business.
Under the scheme, local consumers paid him directly to receive fresh produce each week – not a plastic wrapper or supermarket label in sight.
Nearly 10 years later, the idea has become a nationwide success.
There are more than a thousand independent produce groups dotted around France, including more than 100 in the Ile-de-France.
It is so popular that some groups have reported long waiting-lists of people wanting to join up.
The initiative is called Amap, which stands for Associations pour le Maintien d’une Agriculture Paysanne. At least once a week, the farmer provides the Amap group with a big delivery of homegrown produce. Volunteers then split the delivery up into individual boxes for each member to collect.
Each Amap makes a contract with the producer to supply a box for six months or a year. The arrangements for customers and the produce delivered are different from Amap to Amap and farm to farm. It is not just vegetables and fruit that are concerned but often milk, meat, cheese, bread, honey, sunflower oil, eggs and wine.
Mr Vuillon says the movement began in Japan in the 1960s, where a group of mothers were worried about the processed food they were feeding their children and decided to sign a contract directly with a local farm to buy produce.
Similar projects launched in Germany, Austria and Switzerland in the 70s. The US began its own “Community Supported Agriculture” initiative in 1985, starting in New York and nearly a fifth of the population in Canada takes part in a veg box scheme.
“The system is all about proximity, biodiversity, making tasty produce and respecting the seasons,” Mr Vuillon says.
“It works because each Amap is autonomous and makes its own link with a farm. They are independent of the outside world – there are no subsidies, no price indices, no middlemen.”
The scheme has given a lifeline to many farmers, who are no longer wholly reliant on negotiations with big supermarkets – which can be tough on prices and the size and shape of produce.
Having a long-term contract with an Amap means farmers have a guaranteed, stable source of revenue. There is also less wastage – every item that is fit to eat is put to use.
Prices vary from one group to the next. They are designed to be very similar to what is charged in the supermarkets, while the margins normally taken up by the big shops and their distribution networks are eliminated. There is also very little packaging.
A box for the week for two adults and a child will typically cost between e15 and e25 depending on what is included. For a single person, e10 should buy a box with about 3kg of produce inside. Individuals can swap products among others in the group depending on their tastes and dietary needs.
The Amap groups are urged to welcome customers on low incomes by offering different payment options or discounts in exchange for helping out with the distribution effort each week. The weekly handout takes place at an agreed day and time at a fixed point in the area or sometimes at the farm itself.
Bernadette Latour helps run the Amap branch in Boulazac in the Dordogne. She says: “I find it a much better way to shop. There is direct contact with the people who grow and farm what is on my dinner plate – it is very friendly because we all meet up once a week and pitch in and help sort out the paniers.
“The food is largely organic, or at least comes from responsible farming – and it has not been transported over hundreds of kilometres in trucks and aeroplanes.
“You pay a little more than the cheapest products from a supermarket. But if you want to buy organic and locally it is less expensive than a specialist supermarket.
“We think our prices are very reasonable.”
Perhaps the greatest constraint is that eating locally means eating seasonally – and in the depths of winter your choice can be limited. Some Amaps only run in spring and summer, while others operate all-year round and you will be tied into a fixed-price 12-month contract.
Another potential downside to bear in mind is that buying into an Amap means consumers share some of the risk if the farmer encounters problems. If bad weather wipes out some of the harvest, the losses are shared among the buyers and there are no refunds.
This gives farmers an incentive to diversify their offer as much as possible to reduce the risk of failure. Most contracts have a clause requiring the farmer to be open about how their work is going and keep the group informed of any problems with the crop.
There is no national organisation bringing together the network of Amaps at the moment, although this is talk of setting one up.
You can find your nearest group at www.reseau-amap.org
If you have several Amaps in your area, it is worth approaching them all to see the different produce on offer – and find the price and collection day that suits you best.