Consumer story ''Where is the Food we need?''

It never ceases to amaze me why it’s so difficult to buy locally produced food that is tasty, seasonal, fresh and chemical-free directly from farmers. Why do government policies and programmes always seem to favour big agro-business and supermarket culture?

It’s Thursday. I’m on my way to collect this week’s food order. I’m running late again. My wife, Marta, made the order online on Tuesday but has taken our daughters' horse riding. 

The short drive to the Rohatyna tavern, where the Liszki Basket Club has its collection point is always an opportunity to reflect on where we are with access to locally-produced food in Poland. Increasing the contribution of locally-produced food in Poland’s food economy has been a concern of mine for many years now: first as a campaigner and now as an IT and organisational solutions provider for those wanting to establish or grow local markets for locally produced food in their area.

Unlike much of Europe, Poland is a powerhouse of small farms. With its 1.3 million mostly small farmers, Poland should be awash with locally-produced food. But that’s just not the case. There are 130.000 farms in my region of Malopolska. Most are small, family operations – less than 4 hectares in size, often fragmented in several pieces and focused on producing for their own needs. There’s lots of part-time farming and important food traditions.  These are holdings that survived the attempts of the communists to nationalise farmland and create state farms after World War II.  

Most farmers produce primarily for their own needs because they can’t connect to the consumer who wants to buy their products. At the same time, supermarkets would have us believe that there is no alternative to what they have to offer. And the supermarkets in my area in and around Krakow are certainly NOT focused on offering food produced by Malopolska farmers. They would rather convert them into their customers.

© Rafal Serafin

The Liszki Basket is a possible solution. Located just outside of Krakow, it operates as a kind of virtual marketplace, where you can buy products directly from farms in the area. Just as in a physical market, each week farmers put on offer what they have to sell. Consumers, who have joined the Club, can order online and choose a collection point. In these Covid times, there is also home delivery. But my family always likes to collect in person from the Rohatyna tavern. This week, Marta did the ordering and my task is to collect and pay for the order. We are consumers who have been buying regularly through the Club for nearly five years. It’s a once-a-week domestic ritual for us now. 

But why only once a week? Perhaps I can talk to Dagmara who started the Club and has been nurturing it ever since. Once a week is not enough. I had to go to Biedronka – the local supermarket just a few days ago and ended up buying vegetables. Couldn’t wait till Thursday. We could and should be buying from the Club at least twice a week.

Difficult Beginnings

When Dagmara moved to the village of Kaszow, just outside of Krakow, she wanted to have access to food produced by local farmers. Eating locally produced food seemed the best way of assuring quality, freshness and authenticity. It stands to reason that farmers keep the best for themselves and their families. She managed to persuade a group of 5 or 6 farmers from the Liszki area to sell part of what they produced through what would become for them a new distribution and sales channel. 

Barbara and Krystyna, who are today stalwarts of the Liszki Basket, were not convinced to begin with. They never aspired to setting up businesses or trading, but they were interested in some extra income from selling what they already produced and very much interested in finding ways to involve their children who had moved to the city and turned their back on the part-time farming family traditions. The Liszki Basket has given them these things and more. Krystyna has been selling regularly also at a farmers market in Krakow, attracting customers to the Liszki Basket, whereas Barbara no longer gets up to get the 6 am bus to clean offices in Krakow. She’s focused on producing different flavoured versions of her pickled gherkins, which now generate a regular income. Her husband has adapted the kitchen and built storage. And her son helps out with the marketing.

Krystyna – one of Liszki Basket farmer-pioneers, © Fundacja Partnerstwo dla Srodowiska 

Having also moved to Kaszow with my family, I helped Dagmara turn her Liszki Basket idea into a reality as part of my work at an environmental NGO.  But it was Dagmara who had to interest local farmers in the scheme on the one hand, and on the other to cajole all our friends to buy regularly from the farmer group. There was no software. Just the telephone and email, coupled with organising an informal collection point on Krystyna’s farm, located in the middle of our village of Kaszow. It was not easy. Because just a few years ago, our village was seen by Cracovians as being in the middle of nowhere, whereas local farmers were suspicious about city folks.

We don’t want to get into any formalised selling system, farmers told us. We have enough problems with sanitary inspectors, tax inspectors and other types of inspectors poking their nose into our affairs. And anyway, we only deal with people we know. That’s what the farmers told us. As local food advocates, we were astounded to discover that regulations prevented farmers from processing and selling food from their farms to customers. To do so, they had to register as businesses and lose their farmer status. That was new to me. So, we connected with the Agricultural Chamber and campaigned successfully with them and other local food advocates for policy and regulatory changes that now allow farmers to process and sell their products directly to customers. There were dozens of meetings with parliamentarians and government officials, media events,  conferences and awareness-raising in schools. It’s all taken for granted today.  

Competing in the market-place

Fast-forward 5 years. Today, there are over 30 farmers selling and more than 400 consumers regularly buying over 100 products via a sophisticated software platform that was developed and tested by the farmers and consumers coming together to form what is today the Liszki Basket Club. It’s a pretty slick operation today using an IT platform – you couldn’t manage all the transactions and processes with just a pencil and a piece of paper. The IT platform is the key in that it enables all the intermediary functions of packaging, logistics, settling transactions, marketing, collection points, quality assurance and product development to be shared among the producers and consumers involved. There’s no need for volunteers as in food coops or community-supported agriculture. 

But increasing sales and keeping costs in check continues to be a challenge. This means that Barbara, Krystyna and the other farmers involved are now not only tracking their own costs and sales volumes on the IT platform but are figuring out what can be done with others to increase sales volumes without resorting to intermediaries. In other words, what would it take for my family to buy more from them?

So, still, on my way to collect this week’s food order, I couldn’t help feeling pleased with myself as I arrived at Rohatyna. Thanks to the Liszki Club, my family has had regular access to locally-produced and healthy food. I feel as if I know all the 30 or so farmers involved, so I know who is producing the food. Typhoon potatoes from Krystyna, pickled gherkins from Barbara, organic apples from Adam, traditional hams and sausage from Artur and seasonal vegetables from Łukasz.