The Co-op has long associations with Fairtrade food and it's to this relationship that Midcounties Co-op public relations manager Adrian Barradell turns when he's describing the group's Local Harvest scheme. "It's the local equivalent of Fairtrade," he says. "It has Fairtrade values, Fairtrade deals for growers, premium products and reduction of food miles."
The scheme was launched in 2003 by the Oxford, Swindon and Gloucester Co-op - now the Midcounties Co-op following the merger with West Midlands Co-operative Society last year. It was set up with the aim of working closely with suppliers to give consumers access to locally-produced products.
Barradell says that the impetus for the scheme came from shoppers and Co-op members and took a year-and-a-half of planning before any products were seen in the shops. Getting the scheme off the ground was a challenge, necessitating work to satisfy many different groups including local producers, the Co-op's buying group, store manager, members and customers. As each had their own idea of what a local food scheme should be and what would constitute success, caution and consultation were needed.
This careful approach, says Barradell, meant that the scheme grew naturally and good working relationships could be built up.
One of the initial problems was ensuring local producers could meet the standard required by the Co-op both in terms of quantity and quality. But the Co-op helped out in a number of ways, including covering the cost of the Technical Audit to ensure that production standards were met.
After many months of work, the scheme was initially launched in 20 stores with 100 products from 11 local suppliers. Over the past three years this has built up to 150 products from 17 suppliers, spanning everything from dairy, meat and eggs to beer, soft drinks, dried wholefoods and breakfast cereals.
The society defines 'local' as its trading area and stipulates a minimum of 80% of the product in the scheme must have come from local. If made locally using external ingredients it will say 'manufactured locally' and at least 80% of the work must have been done by local people.
Shelf edging and pos using producers' pictures highlights the local brands, which are displayed both with non-local produce and on special gondola ends.
Throughout the year the society runs Marketing Our Co-operative Advantage (MOCA) periods, which highlight the Co-op's campaigning issues. When C-Store visited the Summertown store just outside Oxford, four gondola ends were give over to MOCA schemes - one of those being Local Harvest. "We're making an effort to display local food so people buy it," says Barradell. Well-known brands mix with products from lesser known manufacturers - but all are local.
In some stores Meet the Producer events have been held where customers can taste produce and talk to producers. In January 2005 the group produced six complementary recipe cards using a range of Local Harvest products in conjunction with Oxfordshire food campaigner, columnist and cook Susanne Austin. A pamphlet highlighting the scheme and any new products, Local Harvest Updates, is produced regularly and available in-store.
Summertown store assistant manager Andy Patrick says that the scheme has proved extremely popular, with many customers asking for products when they're not available. "The meat from Field Farm Fresh (see panel) is very popular as it tends to stand out from the other meats."
Barradell says that out of stocks are inevitable due to the seasonal nature of local produce, but adds: "There's something quite nice about getting seasonal produce - it can build up expectation. We're certainly not pretending every single product is available every single time."
Barradell says that the Local Harvest scheme is "a small but impressive part of the business". The next stage for the retailer is to determine how to take the model into the West Midlands region following last year's merger. "There's potential now thanks to a wider area and we're already looking at local produce in the north," says Barradell.
Barradell's advice to retailers looking to sell local goods is to start slowly. "Start small and do it with one or two people, but be very, very clear about what all parties want to get out of it."

The local supplier

Field Farm Fresh based in Appleton, Oxfordshire, became a supplier for four stores in the Midcounties Co-op Local Harvest scheme in December last year and is now in 20 local stores. The farm supplies meat including sirloin steak and topside beef from Charolais and Continental-cross cattle, joints of lamb and pork chops. The farm is a supplier to the restaurant trade and also acts as a wholesaler.
General manager David Gomm says: "We approached the Co-op in about October 2004. The Local Harvest Scheme was up and running but it didn't include meat." He says that the scheme seemed a good fit with the company's ethos of local farming.
The Co-op takes four products from the farm, which is quite small scale as the farm slaughters approximately 300 cattle a week. Gomm says that while the Co-op's commitments to its other meat suppliers keeps the number of lines small, the relationship between supplier and retailer is great. "It's not the most lucrative thing money-wise, but it has been very supportive and helpful and given us that bit of kudos. It has made us realise there is retail potential." he says "It has helped us in terms of promotion and we have thrown quite a lot of advertising at it."
Gomm thinks that the public are becoming more concerned about the origins of what they eat - particularly in meat products. "It's beginning to be very important; you can see people picking up produce to find out where it's come from." The farm also supplies local retailers Local Tastes of Thame and Taste of the Country in Ledbury.