In this series of blogs, Lynne Davis, CEO of the Open Food Network, describes the business models of some of the food hubs and producers in their community. Here, in the second blog of the series, Lynne introduces Bowhouse Link.
Bowhouse, based in the East Neuk of Fife, has hosted monthly market weekends for food producers in the region since 2017. Part of the Balcaskie estate, Bowhouse is a farm first. The farm produces cereals; primarily wheat and barley, and rears beef cattle and lamb, with a small forestry operation. When Covid hit, the team realised that local food producers were losing sales and felt a responsibility to act, so they launched their online food hub, Bowhouse Link.
‘Covid has changed how people look at us,’ says Rosie Jack, who coordinates Bowhouse Link. ‘People used to see Bowhouse as just a monthly market, but now they are more interested in the producers that are present all the time.’
Bowhouse Link doesn’t want to be seen as a single ‘visitor experience’ but as a year-round, regular source of local food.
‘The vision is to connect the local community to local produce. You should be able to eat the food that is grown locally and which you pass by on a regular basis. We’re proud to connect people to produce and take away the middleman. We also support small businesses to gain access to land, space and collaboration.’ – Rosie Jack
Bowhouse Link runs a food delivery of around 40 boxes per week with an average box size of about £50. 80% of the retail price goes to food producers with the remaining 20% to Bowhouse. At this scale, the team can employ three part-time staff. Bowhouse Link, registered as a private company, receives almost no grant funding (less than 2% of revenue) but benefits from being part of the larger business. They have access to packing space on the farm and share a refrigerated delivery vehicle with the onsite butchery.
Waste is something that the whole Bowhouse team takes very seriously, going to great lengths to minimise it, and in turn work more closely in harmony with the farm and the land. ‘There is no food waste [from traders] as they know exactly what to harvest or prepare. So, as long as the pick and pack goes right, there is no waste whatsoever,’ Rosie explains. Any food waste from the brewery goes either to the pigs or to their veg plot for compost. Cardboard also goes to the veg plot for raised beds. Bowhouse holds a small stock of non-perishable goods. This includes goods from some beer and jam producers who are a little further away, which reduces the number of trips required and thus carbon emissions from distribution.
Having been a market and commercial farm before the addition of the online food hub, mutual trust existed between Bowhouse and their producers from the outset. To an extent, the team ‘curates’ the producers involved, to ensure a good range of food is available and also that the producers meet the ecological and social values that Bowhouse Link aims to promote. They don’t source from wholesalers or traders: all produce is direct from the producers. Similarly, the physical presence of the monthly market helps to engage and establish trust with the shopper community. Sometimes things go wrong – produce is unavailable or damaged – but they maintain strong customer relationships through active communication.
‘Personalised experience helps to solve problems before they become an issue,’ Rosie says.
Bowhouse Link would like to expand but face some challenges. They are keen to simplify admin processes so that they can achieve more with less staff time. For Bowhouse, being based on a rural farm means that getting people to the market can be a challenge. Similarly, for Bowhouse Link, delivery logistics are much more expensive than they would be if there were a higher population density in the locality or bigger towns nearby. The success of Bowhouse Link hinges on trading this summer.
‘There’s high uncertainty with customer habits so I’m not sure about what will happen,’ Rose says. ‘Will the wave stop? If it does, it’s not considered a failure but we will need to find another way.’
You can read more about Bowhouse Link in the Open Food Network case study, here.
The Open Food Network exists to support community food hubs and socially and ecologically driven food businesses to thrive by providing software tools alongside mentoring and support to pioneers across the UK. The Open Food Network UK work alongside the global OFN community building open source software commons to transform our food systems, build communities and regenerate the Earth.
Lynne has a background in agriculture, engineering and economics and combines this knowledge to find creative opportunities for community food businesses to thrive. Lynne has worked on agricultural policy with the Landworkers’ Alliance, La Via Campesina, and the RSA Food, Farming and Countryside Commission. She is also a board member of Ecological Land Cooperative.