New growth for veg box schemes

Lockdown has seen demand for veg boxes booming. But while the additional demand has been great for producers, it’s brought new challenges, too.

 

  • During lockdown, crofter and veg grower Jo Hunt saw an increase in box orders of 25%
  • Together with others, he was struggling to meet demand
  • The RISS group formed to find solutions, and decided to focus on software
  • Technology has made collaboration easier
  • Together, the group hopes to engage with bigger players in the supply chain

 

A new Rural Innovation Support Service (RISS) group of veg box suppliers has come together to look for the common issues facing the industry, and to explore options for software that will allow them to better manage their veg box schemes.

“Additional demand is a good thing, but it caught us a bit unawares”

“When lockdown happened in March, demand for veg boxes went through the roof,” says crofter and group member Jo Hunt of Knockfarrel Produce near Inverness. “We increased our numbers by 25% but had to turn away over 100 other people looking for veg boxes, and we had issues with our ordering system since we were using spreadsheets and emails that weren’t up to processing larger numbers.

Picture: Jo Hunt

 “Additional demand is a good thing, but it caught us a bit unawares and we realised that the farm wasn’t as resilient as it should be about these sorts of changes.

 “I spoke to five or six other Scottish veg box providers I know and found that everyone was in the same situation, struggling to take up the opportunity of the additional demand through the pandemic. When I spoke to the Soil Association about what we could do, they suggested we set up a RISS group to try and tackle some of these issues collectively.”

 Software for veg box producers

 “We’ve had two meetings so far and realised we need software that would allow veg box producers to manage their customers in a better way, and to manage their farms and cultivation,” says group facilitator Ana Allamand of Soil Association Scotland. “It seems like people are using a lot of spreadsheets, and it can get really confusing.

 “It’s something that’s stopping their growth, and at a time when so many people want to start using veg box schemes, not being able to grow has been a problem.

 “The number one thing people have been struggling with is software to manage a greater number of customers,” agrees Hunt.

 The group are now looking at what’s required to tackle these challenges. Allamand tells us: “The next stage for the group is mapping what options are already out there and what works and doesn’t work against a shopping list the group is putting together. If there’s nothing there, we will look into what does it take to create some customised software. So those will be the two avenues we pursue in the coming months.”

Picture: Jo Hunt's croft near Dingwall, Ross-shire

 Working collectively during the pandemic

“I’ve actually found it easier to connect during the pandemic!” says Hunt. “We’re four hours’ travel from Edinburgh here – so video calls have made it much easier to do business. It’s not like you’re the only person calling into a meeting.”

Working collectively in this way has meant other benefits for the group too. Hunt tells us: “We also need to do some more work with people’s crop planning so you can have a more consistent supply over a longer growing season.

“While we produce about 80% of what we sell, in the winter will buy in some root vegetables and brassicas from other larger farms. During the pandemic that supply dried up from where it was going to expanded demand in the central belt, so there was concern about whether there was enough wholesale veg being produced for the veg box schemes.

“Working together means we can collect information on what people need to extend the growing season so we can run an additional session on this – as well as sharing best practice. For the wholesale produce supply chain, a group of veg box producers with a combined turnover means you can engage with larger players within the supply chain. It’s only by coming together as a group that we can do this.

“So we’re looking at extra planting, and the possibility of a collective supply chain for next year.”

 Are you a veg box producer who wants to get involved?

“The more people we have, the more complete a picture we’ll get of what we need software to do for veg box producers,” says Allamand. “We’ll be inviting speakers in, and it might give you ideas about what other software could be useful for your farm.”

 Email Ana to get involved

 

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