One way of ensuring yourself a supply of local food is by muscle: set up a buying group. All that you need to call yourself a buying group is ‘a handful of people’ sharing ‘an informal agreement’ but if you have a paid secretary and public liability insurance you can still lay claim to the title. Sharing out a mound of rice in the driveway would count, but if at the end of the year you’ve clocked up a turnover of ¬£60k you’ll need a VAT number. Buying groups may be agreements between friends or full size community projects; either way there are many benefits, both to consumers and producers.

Sourcing in bulk from a nearby supplier is likely to make food available a lot more cheaply as the burden of storing it and applying its cosmetic lustre is on your shoulders. At the same time, the prices groups can afford to pay to farmers are often higher than those offered by the high street shops. This symbiosis also works for agricultural products which farmers have difficulty selling – misshapen vegetables – and which buyers have difficulty obtaining – rare breeds. Group buying may also extend to dry goods such as rice or flour. Existing suppliers like Suma and Essential may be able to provide bulk purchases, but have specific rules of operation. Such cooperative methods also yield social benefits, drawing together neighbours within dreary, desolate, and alienated communities and introducing them to a farmer who too is isolated, as much from consumers as they are from understanding the origin of their food. All this plus a reduction in food miles and a guaranteed source of tasty produce.

It’s easy to see the advantages of a buying scheme, and it’s easy to get excited about what you read; but to get started you need a clear idea of what you want to achieve, and an understanding of how to bring it about. Make a quick list on the back of your hand. Assimilate members: family, friends and neighbours can generally be pressured into doing things you want them to do, and you could make up numbers by accosting people you see regularly at work or in the street and have wanted an opportunity to speak to. Remember that your resources may only extend to a certain number of members – unless you’re willing to live in one room while the rest of the house is given over to storing potatoes – so only be as keen as is expedient.

The second key element is the supplier to pump in the material part of the enterprise, one of a size to match requirement. Canvassing farmers’ markets and internet resources including those of the Soil Association is a reasonable starting point. Once the project seems feasible, put the kettle on: you need a system for ordering and payment, as well as a means of collection, storage and distribution. Various complications arise from the point of view of trading standards (accurate and expensive scales), environmental heath (freezer van for the transportation of meat), insurance and the like, but there are organisations to help, and some ethically minded banks provide accounts of this type of venture. Also, local established groups may be reached by telephone to offer advice.

Setting up a buying group will require a lot of research, thought and preparation, but the rewards are well worth it.

Distilled from the Soil Association’s document ‘Setting up an organic buying group’.

Bristol buying groups

Sims Hill Shared Harvest
Like an organic veg box scheme, but run as a member-owned co-operative. Members invest in the running of the farm, and receive a share of the harvest, instead of just being customers who pay for products. Paying shares and working shares are both available. It makes a refreshing change from consumer culture, and provides its local members with quality fruit and vegetables, grown using permaculture farming methods, delivered every week to their local pick-up point.

Members also enjoy a strong bond with where their food comes from, with regular community events. Prices are comparable with other box schemes. New members welcome at any time of the year.