Poking a toe at off grid – buying better

We want to shop better. We want to do our grocery buying better. As a family, we’ve been thinking about who we spend our money with and where and we’ve come to the conclusion that it is time, especially now that as a family we HAVE a little more time, to shop in a more thoughtful manner.There are lots of reasons for this and I’m keen to have people’s thoughts and ideas too.

We’re small business owners. We own a small business. We rely, absolutely rely, on people choosing to shop with us. We don’t have the massive cost savings and discounts that giants  have at their disposal, we rely on people deciding that they will shop with us, will take the time to get to know our site, will choose to support us, will accept that a few pence more in one place or the other might occur. We exist, as an independent retailer, only by providing a different service to the multi-national, universe sized retailers who can hold postal services, couriers and distributors virtually to ransom, demanding products are stripped of their character to be sold at a certain price and that postal services deliver for virtually nothing just so that no one else gets the business instead.

Owning our shops we have to strike a balance between good prices, ones that won’t put people off and the kind of personal, wonderful service that make people glad they took the time to look at us, shop with us, put their card details in and trust us. We have to hope that knowing they can phone us up and we ABSOLUTELY WILL KNOW which Groovy Girl has shiny shoes, is enough for them. That knowing we will help them get exactly the right replacement toy will make them spend their money with us. That they’ll eschew the multi-nationals for a company that will take the time to get out all the dolls house people and work out which ones will suit a certain dolls house just right.

When it comes down to it though, the vast majority of people will shop, sometimes for more money and no service and less choice, with sites that are a household name and have the money to run a site which stores card details. (And the legal department to keep them afloat when it goes wrong). And the truth is – so do I. I’m as guilty as the next person of receiving the vast majority of my Xmas shopping from the goddess of online shopping.

In the run up to Christmas, Max and I spent sleepy evenings watching the Back In Time series about Shepton Mallet’s high street. And then recently we watched Panorama: What Price Cheap Food? The second made us us realise that this country is truly in danger of losing everything it loves about itself by becoming reliant on orange, green and blue and red stripped carrier bags. It wasn’t even the reality of the truly poor food that those massive farms produces, it was the sheer, relentless march of supermarkets, the dreadful map of the country that, until you are well into Wales, has barely a space between the dots that denote them. I’m so conditioned to supermarkets I practically feel anxious going in to independent shops – I’m conditioned to packaged and processed groceries in a manner than disgusts me.

And Shepton Mallet, that fascinating experiment that reintroduced the people of a virtually abandoned town centre to personal service and thoughtful shopping. In some respects I think independent online shops are almost the modern day equivalent of the Victorian shop – small enough to be personal, big enough to do things well. I like to think of us in that way; focused on good products and good service. But on the high street, I think people get nervous now in a shopping environment where someone might say “can I help you?” – I’m beginning to think the impersonal lack of service in a supermarket is exacerbating our Britishness.

The most astonishing thing about that programme, for us as business people, was that the towns people loved those individual shops, enjoyed the service, enjoyed the products – then moved away to the supermarket when it became available to them, complaining as they shopped there that it had killed the businesses they loved.

And I fear this is the fate, potentially, of all small business. The truth about that map of supermarkets is that every time they see a space between the dots, they are not just seeing an opportunity for expansion, they are also actively looking at where people shop in that locality and actively, intentionally, plotting to destroy those businesses. It is not really any different online; we, like countless others, are on a hit list somewhere. We watch our brands be bought up, one after another, by big business and we lose another toe hold. We can fight for some of it – but we lose every time. We rely on the odd, the very occasional, brand who chooses to say no, to keep our business.

So this year, Max and I decided that as well as talking the talk, we need to walk the walk as well. And it is hard. For example, I wanted to buy some workbooks today and the same basket was £10 less with a large online bookseller than it was with the actual maker of the books. There are some places in life where it is going to be tough to make those changes and some places where in all honesty, we can’t afford to. I can, I really can, choose to use independent websites more – and I’m going to.

We decided that we CAN afford to do it with food, partly because there is a genuine difference in quality there if we buy locally and partly because it involves personal, local relationships. And it is those things we want to do better. We want to support our local businesses, get to know they people who grow things and make things and support their endeavour to stay in business. I’ll be honest, we’re not doing this because we want to be organic, or even frugal, or crunchier than we were before. We just want to know some of the people we buy from – and make a difference to them the way our customers make a difference to us.

It’s harder than it ought to be. For a while now, we’ve been buying all our roast dinners and sausages from a local meat man and our potatoes and onions from a chap who turns up in the same, very close by, lay by. That isn’t so hard to do. But our local farm grows organically and totting up our weekly fresh veg purchases on their website, the cost was more than double the supermarket; we can’t afford that, despite wishing we could. So we’re still looking for a fruit and veg person. We’ve applied for an allotment but there is a year waiting list – and that is by the by any way, we’d like to cut on cost by growing our own, but that isn’t our primary goal and the allotment would be as much about education and family time as the food we grew.

We live within 6 miles of 3 supermarkets and there are now NO local butchers, bakeries or green grocers; they’ve all gone out of business. Our local Co-op doesn’t have a bakery and only sells sliced bread; Max has tried baking bread but says it isn’t really cost effective. I’d be interested to know if a bread making machine is more so?

In an ideal world I think we’d like to buy our fruit and veg, meat and bread locally – and so far we’ve had very limited success. We went to our main city farmers market but it was two meat men and a jam stall – there are 3 more we are going to try. We have a pick your own farm near by that has a certain amount of veg for sale, but it is only open in picking season. Our ordinary city market is unappealing, highly inaccessible and mostly non-food goods.

So, I’m curious, how easy is it to buy locally where you live? What does all this mean to you? Does what I’ve written have any resonance with you? Do you, honestly, have any suggestions?

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  1. Rita says

    I live on the border of an ‘affluent’ area, an ‘up and coming’ area and an inner city area. The local farmers’ markets and independent food shops are well out of my price range. We have a local street market, but then, is the food on it really ‘local’? I cannot afford to shop anywhere else but the supermarkets when it comes to food, even though I’d dearly love to shop locally and support independent businesses.

    I do like Amazon, but I find I support more independent business when shopping for gifts, toys, and HE supplies. I like to support my fellow HEr in their businesses, and in the majority of cases the customer service more than makes up for any extra I might need to pay.

    • says

      That’s encouraging to hear Rita. And frustrating to hear about food. I think we suffer from almost the opposite – our area is nice but our city is poor. I don’t think local businesses can get enough customers who will pay a ‘bit’ more for local produce.

  2. Ailbhe says

    When I’m not ill we bake a lot of our own bread; we have in general found it cost-effective except that everyone eats a lot more bread when it’s home-made. We’ve been buying most of our groceries from a local ethical-based community co-op for years now, mainly because of environmental impact – they do an awful lot unpackaged and encourage refilling containers instead of buying new. They also do a lot of membership discounts and selling things cheap near the use-by date.

    I’d like to use the local butchers but neither of the two with which I’m most familiar can give any assurances about animal wellbeing at all, so we stick with what’s sourced through the co-op.

    I buy a lot of books from independent sellers via the big website or abebooks. And we look for second-hand, local or fair-trade clothes and toys.

    I console myself with the knowledge that if I could attain my ideals, it would mean I wasn’t aiming high enough.

      • Ailbhe says

        It started from a group of locals clubbing together to buy in bulk from Suma etc. I’m aware of several other groups around the country doing that much; from there, accepting allotment veg in trade for the bulk-bought goods is a small step!

  3. Sarah says

    Merry i completely agree with the sentiment but am tripped up by the practicalities. Sadly the intention has to be balanced against, and often loses out to, available time. I constantly have good intentions and often, but not often enough, get to the local market (stamford) which has a couple of good green grocers, a great cheese man and a nice baker or two plus lots of other stalls I’ve not explored. When I’m in town will pop into the butchers and stock up (they have a loyalty card and great sausages) but have yet to make it to the farmers market in our other local town which tbh always seems more expensive than the usual and I don’t mind paying more if the quality is significantly better but I’m not sure it always is. Having said all of that I currently have the time to shop around but when I return to work in the spring I can’t go to a market which is on a Friday so will be back to buying everything (rather than most things) at the local supermarket or rather my husband will since I have to head straight into children and bedtime once work is over, I hate weekend shopping and refuse to give my one day of not being at work which is supposed to be time spent with the chidren over to mundane chores. The fish man comes on a Monday – again no good when I’m at work, and I’m not keen on milk sitting on the doorstep all day. There is also the time factor of everything together in the supermarket. There was a farm shop in town which I shopped in once as was MUCH more expensive and I noticed this week is no longer trading there.

    I have a bread maker – used to use it loads but fell out of the habit and although the bread was nice the family other than me preferred the bought variety! It also doesn’t keep too well but I guess with a large family that’s not so much of an issue.

    I would love an allotment like my brother has but they seem very labour intensive such that the relative cost of the items you produce is expensive so would stick to either rarer varieties or foods we eat in bulk to make it worthwhile. Having no spare time in the week would also be an issue for me. Chickens would be ok but not sure the landlord would approve! Roll on finding a house of my own again.

    We do try and buy books from the lovely independent bookshop even though it has a smaller selection and can’t do the deals of the chain two doors down but it’ is sometimes with gritted teeth although they do have a lovely couch you can flop on whilst browsing for your chosen books. I always go for the independent coffee shops/cafes rather than the chains although buggy access can be awkward. There are a couple of toy shops but they are tiny and not really with things I want in them -something that is really missing locally.

    I do love wandering round the independent ‘home’ shops but mostly for browsing and am one of those that feels really uncomfortable when the assistant speaks to me or watches me wander round esp if I’m the only one in there. Makes me feel I ought to buy or get out. Much prefer to ask them if I want something.

    Not sure i’ve got any answers but if it’s not too far would suggest giving Stanford market & town a try (Fridays but need to arrive early as parking awful though if you have strong arms can park at Burghley and is only a 10 min walk from the small carpark). Doesn’t sacrewell farm run an organic box scheme too?


    • says

      Sarah, we must be living closer than I realised (assuming you meant Stamford when you typed it near the top and not Stanford, which is further away!)

      Stamford is on our hit list – because of where we live, we can get there almost as quickly as the city centre. What you say sounds positive so we’ll definitely give that a try.

      And I agree on the intentions – online it is often not much more of a case of choosing to do it and finding your card; in real life it is harder and were it not for having a simpler life these days, we couldn’t.

      You know, you are always VERY welcome to come and browse our unit – maybe we should do a Burghley day and catch up?

  4. Tech says

    We used to get a lot of dried stuff from Suma – localish (large) co-op, but the minimum spend went up a fair bit so we had to stop as we a. couldn’t afford it and b. had no where to store the vast quantities of food we had to buy. We used to buy all our veg from the local organic nursery, but it go too expensive, the quality went down hill and the guy who delivered it annoyed the hell out of me every Wednesday morning! So we mainly buy at what I call the evil emporium (tesco) though we do support our local farmer by buying meat from him every couple of months – it’s not organic (which goes against the grain) but it is well cared for, grass fed, locally slaughtered and butchered. We’ve been to a couple of farmers markets but it’s generally been cakes and pickles, which whilst very nice aren’t great staples!

    I have mixed feelings about supermarkets especially since having to look more deeply at them and their practices in the first part of my OU social sciences. Living in a rural area means that shopping locally is difficult, and very expensive, so we do really have to uneasily embrace the supermarkets, mostly anyway.

    • says

      My local friends do a Suma order – I could join in but my highly practical husband doesn’t really care about organic pasta, he just wants those basics cheaply. lol. This is what we need to make choices on – do we do it all and pay more, or pick and choose where we can really taste a difference. I asked a friend and she said Suma is cheaper if you want organic, but we don’t, we just want basics, locally.

      Cakes and pickles, lol, yes, like the jam!

      I did the course you are doing (I did DD100) and there was some of that stuff i think; it is so long ago. The Panorama documentary was an eye-opener though; that map – bleurgh.

      • Tech says

        See I’d say that it’s especially important to buy organic if you’re talking about a food that is a staple part of your diet, but I have changed my views on food rather spectacularly since cancer, and appreciate that it’s a fairly unorthodox POV.

        • says

          I probably agree – but I suppose we’re coming at this with one particular target – to buy locally. it is quite likely that other effects will occur as a result of that, but it isn’t the primary goal, iyswim.

          So, I hope obviously, I wouldn’t buy local battery eggs because they were local when I could get free range in the supermarket – I’m not going to compromise core beliefs to achieve local, but it may be that buying local will eventually establish some other habits.

  5. Jenn Impey says

    We use a bread machine – and I’m fairly sure that it makes smaller loaves from the same amount of dough. That could possibly be just our machine / brand of machine, but it’s a decent make so I’m not convinced.

    If you’re looking at cost cutting – which could help you spend a little more to buy locally – then approved food often have large catering sized packs of bread mix (3.5 kg for 99p) which must work out cheaper! (They also often have scone mix / short crust pastry / sponge / dumpling mixes for the same sort of price.)

    Buying well is very hard when you need to also stick to a budget :(

    I found that the Collins website was very good on work books – just picked up a pile for our eldest, 9.99 in the shops here, but 3.99 on their site, and the ones we bought cover all of key stage 3 for a particular subject . . . was actually very impressed!

  6. says

    Well, I’m in the US, so it sounds as if some things are different here. A few days a week we have farmer’s markets in my city – gatherings of people who sell local produce, meat, eggs, honey, etc. so that makes it easier for us to shop locally. Although it’s still easier and faster and cheaper (mostly) to shop at the Supermarket.

    We’ve been making quite a push in our own family to change our buying habits, too. I’m trying to be a mindful consumer and really think through purchases, not just about where we buy them and who we might buy them from, but also if we really need whatever it is that I think we need. I’m starting to shift my thinking some from ‘get as much as I can for as cheap as I can’ to ‘make thoughtful purchases that may cost more and thus make less purchases overall’. Part of this has come from the realization that I spend a ridiculous amount of time cleaning and storing and organizing and picking up all that crap we own – most of which we could do without. It is kind of embarrassing when I really think about all the money we’ve spent on all this junk and then the amount of my time I spend maintaining it.

    Also we’ve been trying to get back into eating healthier, more organically, less processed, etc. which we used to so almost exclusively but kind of went by the wayside after Micah’s death. But I’m with you that buying completely locally and organically for produce would eat up most of my grocery budget and so we are simply not able to do that. But I would love to and shop as much as I can that way.

    We do have a garden that we plant each spring and grow much of the produce that we eat the most and that is a wonderful experience for L, we know we’re eating food grown in a healthy way and also helps our bottom line. :) I’d be happy to share some information on the type of garden we do which is easy and (relatively) cheap to set up and is extremely easy to care for if you’re interested.

    Goodness, I think I could keep on writing, but this has gotten very long!

    • says

      “Part of this has come from the realization that I spend a ridiculous amount of time cleaning and storing and organizing and picking up all that crap we own – most of which we could do without.”

      Oh my, yes!!!!!

  7. Liz says

    Regarding bread baking – like you, we are a biggish family, and I find that the best way to approach bread is in a mass-production kind of way. I tend to bake at least four loaves at once. I use the Tassajara bread book method mostly, and find that this produces fabulous bread. We do own a breadmaker, but it rarely gets used as anything more than a mixer now.

  8. says

    We are so lucky here (Totnes) which is one reason why we moved here. The weekly market is full of local, cheap fruit and veg and there are three butchers in town with lots more opportunities to buy direct from farmers. I go for a delivery service from one of the local fruit and veg shops where I can also buy it online and it will tell me where the produce is from, offer organic and non organic and free delivery the next day. They also deliver dairy and other extra all for a very reasonable price (I haven’t compared for a while but I know the veg box is as cheap as supermarket produce as they can choose good value, in season produce). It’s like the best of online with the ability to buy locally. By the sounds of it, this is unusual. Why? Surely people want this everywhere?

    • says

      You’d think :/

      One reason we ditched the Riverford (or River Nene) idea is that the boxes are cheap enough, but random – and really our evenings are busy and trying to invent meals to fit a box is not what we want. It is all a balancing act, to be sure. They have a ‘front’ at the farm Sarah mentioned, so I do plan to go and see about it all there – but i think the choice is limited.

      I know last time I looked at milk, doorstep milk was ferociously more expensive – mind you we use so much less now that it might have less impact.

      I suspect if we really go for it around the remaining 3 farmers markets, we’ll find enough people to accommodate us. I need them all in one place… oh no, wait… that would be a supermarket!

  9. says

    One thing that is beginning to horrify me, even though again, I’d be lying to say it is my primary motive, is that every time I see the sliced bread the picky girls eat, I see the back. “This loaf has a carbon footprint of 1.5kg” – it horrifies me.

    I think Jenn’s phrase is quite how I feel – shopping more mindfully.

  10. pixieminx says

    This absolutely resonates with me right now. The Back in Time series got us all thinking as family even more so than we already were. We lost our 2 small local high street shops at the dawn of the recession thanks to landlords hiking rents and rates that we couldn’t compete with – one is now a ‘William Hill’ and the other ‘Swinton Insurance’ and as a result we had to go bankrupt. We were forced to take a sharp look at our lives, our spending and adjust where necessary, with us both out of work now STILL money is v. tight. We’re in the middle of a rather rough council estate that I suspect wouldn’t know free-range or organic if it come up and bit them on the a**e, the 2 local butchers included. We have an ages old Fruit and Veg shop but sadly none of the produce is that local – although prices are reasonable. There are a fair few local produce farms (not organic) around us that we pass on the way to kids clubs to fulfill the odd need here and there and we have chickens and ducks for our own eggs (and soon meat) and grow what we can and I think that Farmers Market is the same here but we do have a cheese bloke! The saddest part of all is that Tesco Extra is only, only 0.5 miles away – I can walk there to do a weeks shop, and my first visit is the cheapie Fruit and Veg aisle to arm wrestle a granny to the ground over a 15p caulie! – It is tooo easy, too damn easy, supermarkets everywhere, buy my god do I feel guilty for it…not the granny – actually stepping foot in the shop. I make myself feel better by telling myself that we’re saving petrol by walking there :-(.

    Money may be v. tight but I guess we still have a *choice* in where to spend it – I think I should start looking at other options too…. great.. I have more guilt now :-(

    • says

      Pixieminx – I had no idea, i am so sorry. What were your shops?

      I hope you haven’t got guilt from me :) I think that all of this has come about for us because we are in a position to use time to shop wisely and money, while tight because the competition in our retail area is massive now, is not impossibly so. If we were flat broke and dashing about all day, these thoughts would not be an option at all.

      • pixieminx says

        LOL – no, not guilt from you – it was already there, don’t worry! :-) Shops were Paint Your Own Pottery shops with retail on the side in Hampshire.

          • pixieminx says

            It’s weird… I not that sorry really – if we still had the businesses, we wouldn’t have 3 kids and we’d be way too busy to deal with the 1 or 2 we did have – school wise anyway and as for going Bankrupt – it was a fantastic way of starting to cut down on expenses, crap laying around the house and thinking more environmentally/frugally too. I don’t envy you with the online business, the sheer amount of time and effort that must go into it and all that marketing & SEO too :-o.. as for boring businesses – Play Merrily would make a wonderful High St. Shop in Totnes …. no? 😉

  11. Liz says

    The thing is in the short term it is cheaper but these giant corporations, as soon as they have finished off the local competition, then start to hike their prices. They also put so many people out of work by closing smaller businesses down or force them into poverty by paying hardly anything to farmers etc that again in the longterm we do all pay more for it in taxes to pay for benefits etc.

    Regardless of how low the price of a cauliflower is, someone did pay the price for it being there. But I shop at them and am just as guilty of lining their pockets because sometimes there’s not enough to go round otherwise. I detest that we are enslaved to large corporations.

    • Rita says

      Yes, and that’s the bind I find myself in. I shop in the supermarket because it’s cheaper, but once it’s the only shop in town it will inevitably get more expensive! I live in central London, without our own transport, so travelling further to support indie grocers isn’t really an option. It’s catch 22 :(

    • says

      And business wise, my great frustration is the big companies drive down the prices on things peple would happily pay RRP for. Case in point is one product we sell – at RRP it is £9.95, consequently, as we have it at that, we’ve not sold any for weeks. Then one large company sell out at £6.32 or whatever it was plus free postage and we sell our entire stock at £9.95 plus postage. So we could ALL make more money. makes no flipping sense to me :(

    • pixieminx says

      I detest that it’s cheaper to eat low-or-no nutritional value plastic packed crap than it is to cook from from scratch meals… and I wanna move to a smallholding near Totnes :-)

  12. says

    Im a bit late to the discussion – lots of interesting ideas though.
    We grow as much of our own veg as possible, and have our own chickens for eggs. We have a friend who runs a chicken farm near to us so we can buy good quality chickens from her.
    The rest is far trickier. Our local butcher charges almost double for sausages/mince/meat portions what we could pay at Tesco (even with buying organic or locally sourced food). We do a supermarket shop mainly because we really dont have the time to spend searching for what we want all over the place so we try so we buy everything labelled as ‘local’ from supermarkets when we can – even down to the milk. I do bake my own bread but we bulk buy the flour direct from Doves farm.
    There is a farmers market here(somerset) twice a week but again its not cheap and we dont like to put diesel in the car to go shop elsewhere unless its part of an already necessary journey.

    I do use The Book People and Amazon, as well as eBay all the time because budgets are tight but I certainly would like to do that less and support local stores and HEers more – its a long term goal.

    • says

      I think there is a balance; local/independent has to be at least in the ball park of being competitive or there is no point. We can be as lovely as we like, but if our site is 25% too expensive, we won’t last.

      A journey just to shop i that way would be pointless – I think we’re aiming at achieving some small changes in a way that improves us – it might even be a fortnightly trip out to town together justifies it.

  13. SarahE says

    I’d be with the bread bakers – I made seven loaves last week in a couple of batches, baked three and then four in the oven, sliced them with my electric slicer and then froze 6 of them. I’ll be making more towards the weekend – works out cheaper than good quality bought bread. We grow veg too – and have chooks for eggs, and I buy stuff from Approved Food too. Wish I had little independent shops, but we don’t have them here much either. Good luck in your mission!

  14. says

    I worry about the food shopping. We get an order from Suma regularly – we slid into organic food when pregnant, and try not to compare it to non-organic prices and just buy less, e.g. chicken happens once every two months, and we used to get 1/8 a cow and half a lamb annually for our other meat from a friend and colleague, who used to be certified organic but can’t afford it now (just bought from her coz I knew her, didn’t know about it being organic until we’d been buying for 2 years!). We get a veg box from our local shop- I’d be happy if it was just local, not organic but it doesn’t work that way unfortunately.
    We’re going to be travelling around for 6 months this year, so didn’t buy our annual meat order, have tried to buy suma ‘essentials’ (we can’t afford them at local shop prices, but as Suma itself is local I feel I’m still supporting a local business, and buy other things from the local independant health shop!), but worry about how much I imagine we’ll be buying in supermarkets, with lots of packaging, that we wouldn’t ordinarily. We won’t have our own oven (though I’m sure I could use other folks, it’d be strange trying to get to know an oven for baking bread!) so I imagine we’ll be buying bread that we’d normally make…I’ve got into sourdough bread, which I’ve not found regularly in shops and now I’ve stopped baking-too busy packing- I realise I like supermarket bread ( even breadmaker bread) much less. We’re staying on farms during growing season, so I hope we’ll be able to get some produce as we go but I think it’ll be a learning curve about it all- its taken years to work on our shopping to this point, and we still go to the supermarket, but keep trying to imagine life without it ( and a small child saying at 7 pm ‘you go buy more now mummy’, when we realise we’re out of milk or crumpets, as she knows no different…)

    • says

      It will be a huge change – I have a friend about to embark on the same type of journey.

      As well as our meat man, who sells us 3 chickenss for £11 (I’m trying not to think about it) Max’s dad buys us half a pig for Xmas every year. It lasts us really well and is from a farmer who is both local to them and important to all of us, so that feels very right.

  15. says

    Gosh – what a lot of ideas and problems and solutions and tips all at once – but a really important thing and something I think about too.

    We try to buy our food locally. We get a good organic box with fruit and veg and eggs delivered each week (£6 for veg, £6 for fruit and £1.80 for eggs), and we go to the local farmers market as well as local butchers. Last weekend I bought a good size local free range chicken. It cost £11. It’s a lot, but it produced 8 meals (5 roast chicken dinners and 3 portions of risotto) and will soon be a litre or so of stock in my freezer. And, as we dont have roast chicken every week (or even every month) then I am not worried about the fact that I could buy a chicken of the same size for around one third of that. Because, it’s not simply about price. It’s also about quality, and making good food.

    I like to make bread too. I usually make 2x 2lb loaves at a time – or sometimes one loaf and some rolls. Again, i’m not so worried about the cost, but actually having/eating ‘good’ bread – and I’m fairly sure that my home baked loaves work out cheaper than the equivalent artisan loaves which are at least £2.50 per loaf…(so sometimes it depends what you are comparing your home grown/home baked items with!)

    One way to make the ends meet, is to cook more thriftily. There is a good cookbook by Kate Colquhon which I have borrowed from the library – the thrifty cookbook – and which gives lots of basic recipes which can be customised to use up whatever leftovers you have. It gave me lots of ideas, and convinced me to do things like freeze crusts and leftover fruit so that I can turn them into breadcrumbs or crumble….

    Allotments are great if you can get one. The waiting list here (in edinburgh) for my local plot is about 7 years. We’ve been on it almost 6 years… It’s true that growing some basics can (possibly) work out more expensive than buying them, but that ‘s only if you dont take into account the fresh air, exercise and the mental health benefits you get from gardening (or the educational potential for home schoolers). It’s a good idea to grow things which are relatively expensive to buy – or hard to get hold of, e.g. mangetout/sugar snap peas, climbing french beans, soft fruit – particularly raspberries which are very easy; salad leaves, herbs, shallots, beetroot. But, you dont necessarily need an allotment to do all this. You can do quite a bit in any outside space….

    Our back garden serves as our allotment. We have a huge rhubarb bed, raspberries, blackberries and an apple tree. And then we grow other things, e.g. shallots, runner/french beans, broad beans, salad leaves, beetroot, chard. Things that we eat, and which dont overduplicate our veggie box.

    As with all these type of conundrums, there is no need to take everything on at once. experiment. try things out, change a few things to start with. but whatever you do, be sure to blog about it!


    • says

      I think it is probably essential for us to make some of these changes slowly, or it will all feel arduous and we won’t stick to it. Just this blog has made me add eggs, cheese and milk to my list of things to investigate. Last year we set lots of stuff growing in the garden, but for obvious reasons it didn’t get the attention it needed. We can do better this year though. I did really enjoy the courgettes, which did well and are something we don’t tend to spend money on.

      I’ve never tried jam, I’m scared of the heat tbh, but as we have a PYO farm 400yrds away, i really should try!

  16. Kirsty says

    Watching the panorama programme just now. Such a lot to think about and has been on my mind lots lately but I fear I’m still making excuses about some aspects of it.

  17. Nic says

    Waving at abusymum – I suspect I am the friend Merry mentioned, surely there can’t be more of us about to head off on the same adventure, I fear I am almost mainstream if so!

    It is precisely this type of thinking that set us off on the road to where we are now but I think any step towards a better ideal is a great one.

    We had an allotment but to be honest were able to grow almost as much in planters and pots on the patio at home, and easier to water / harvest / tend too. Merry, you have plenty of space in your garden to grow loads. Chickens are well worth thinking about too, if not for meat then certainly for eggs, two or three would all but keep you in eggs for about 9 months of the year. Breadmaking is one of those rhythms to get into so it becomes something you just do before you go to bed. Preserving and storing your own harvested fruit & veg would also help with a step towards being more self sufficient.

    I have a sort of hierarchy of what I find important; I want to shop locally, to support small businesses, to have less travelling, to avoid using supermarkets BUT if the local butcher only sells battery chickens, lamb from New Zealand and sausages from unknown origins then I’d rather patronise a supermarket to get ethically reared meat (we run two freezers and fill them with reduced to clear meat and poultry bought on the last day of its best before date at often 75% off. Bulk buying from a farm direct would be another option and freezing it). I try to only buy seasonal – I won’t buy stuff like strawberries or asparagus or apples that we grow really well in the UK in season that have been flown from elsewhere the rest of the year. The first strawberry of the season tastes so much better if you have waited for it – even better if we picked it ourselves from our garden or the local PYO farm. Tea, coffee, sugar, bananas, pineapples – things that we like, can’t be grown here are always fair trade. Basic stuff like flour, pasta we buy value brands, if we were not going away we’d look at packaging free / bulk buying with a local co-op.

    We’ve been watching The People’s Supermarket which is very interesting with regard to people buying together, I know Suma and Infinity seem to be the popular choices for that sort of set up but I imagine there must be other options for group buying.

    Finally I think menu planning is the key, both for controlling budget and minimising waste and for helping with buying seasonally.

    • says

      Yeah, you are, how did you guess?

      I’ve got some missions for the back garden – I need to start composting and that big areas of patio can do better with pots on it this year. Last year I was too pregnant to plan and then too sad to work at it enough.

      Have to say, there is no way I’ll be getting chickens. I really can’t stand them and they seem like nothing but trouble. The rabbits are useless but cuter 😀

      I like your hierarchy; Max is very good at keeping me ‘on topic’ and this is mainly about local rather than organic/frugal/self-sufficient but i think there is every chance one thing will lead to another in some respects.

  18. says

    We have 3 raised beds that grow more produce than we can eat as a family of five all of whom eat adult portions most days. You could fit that in your garden easily and still have room for rabbits and gymnastics :o)

    The local egg man delivers and is cheaper than the supermarket. I admit, we use dozens of eggs for work but would quite happily co-op with likeminded families to get the same price. The same man sells eggs at the sunday market and always sells out early at still a good price.

    Our work veg comes from a grocer, not as cheap as the market/supermarket but delivered, good quality and replacements if we are not happy or something missing, if you are not close to town it is worth paying for to save all the little trips that cost a fortune in fuel.

    We buy meat direct sometimes, particularly lamb which is suprisingly bad at the supermarket out here. We bought a couple of turkeys and roasted them in the bbq, there was enough for 7 large meals and 6 trays of roast for 5 people for the freezer, also saves thinking about meal planning when we are tired, we just pop a tray in the fridge in the morning and grab some veg from the garden in the evening.

    Chicken is tricky because they are so cheap from the supermarket, but again, unless you eat chicken 3 times a week it is worth being a cheapskate in another area and buying a decent fat juicy chook instead. Saying that we eat 2 small chooks in one meal with maybe enough for a couple of sandwiches left over!

    I haven’t made my own bread out here, but used to in the UK, the machine made small loaves which hardly did when the kids were small so I would get a bigger machine, it was cheaper than the bread we used to buy but couldn’t compare in price to sliced from a supermarket which i wouldn’t buy anyway but many do for economy. I suspect we needed less bread slices though as it was more filling and had no mould inhibitors and other yuk.

    I only buy from people I like IRL, so if a shopkeer is regularly grumpy or rude I don’t buy from them.

    Same goes for online service, I rarely buy online, the postage to out here is rarely worth it and in the uk I have a couple of people who buy and post gifts that I pay for for neices etc…. I really wanted to buy a pair of your cute wellies Merry, but the neices grew too big :o(

    Coming out here made a huge difference to the pressure of buying, one of the things I hate the most about UK and other similar countries is the need to spend money, buy the newest, fastest, ack the consu,er bug hasn’t bitten out here yet, but I suspect it is pnly because there aren’t enough people to make it worth sending things, there aren’t PJ’s for every tv programme or pencil cases for every pop band, people tend to use what they have. We are in the sticks in WA which will be quite different to over east, but the flip side is waiting 12 weeks for a chair or washing machine or a spare part because it has to be shipped from the East!


  19. Amanda says

    very late with this….. we’re rural, I tend to do an online supermarket shop once a week out of convenience really. I can in theory buy quite a bit from various farm shops scattered around here but they are more expensive. A while ago I was buying most of our shoppping local using farmshops, growing our own and swapping fruit/veg with friends/neighbours, but it does take time, effort and organisation – which I am lacking in atm! Its one of those things on my todo list which really needs looking at. Gifts I try to make or buy something from a local favourite craft shop – but for arty stuff and books I use amazon. So not that good really!

    • says

      The swapping is an interesting idea – I imagine a fair bit of that goes on at allotments. Kate and I have said we’ll share a half when I get offered one and that would work well I think, well, possibly just doing the watering weeding in turns perhaps. it is a good idea.

      It is very frustrating – we have a strip of land next to us which is perfect for allotments. it is owned by the developers who are happy for it to be that but they own it till the estate is 10 years old. Then the council have to pay to drop the curb for access. That doesn’t cost much but the council won’t do it till the have to and the developers won’t do it because then they are responsible for it. Gr.

  20. says

    I do go with the local vege box when we can, we grow our own when we can and for bread baking I buy strong plain flour in bulk from the local pakistani shops or cash n carry (only way to make bread making doable). It’s hard to remember that most supermarket stuff is cheap because it’s artifically maintained. But hear you on the crap local home grown alternative…. obviously we have our own butchers, which are not cheap compared to supermarket prices, i think the way to go would be to have a co-operative and grow your own. but thats impractical. CSA Landshare adopt an allotment – dunno.

    • says

      One of the things that put Max off bread making is the sheer amount of electricity it uses. I sort of wonder about Nic’s meat thing too – does the cost saving add up properly if you run an extra freezer to finance it?

      • says

        I think it’s probably safe to say that if you want to buy local and/or DIY then it’s going to cost more. I don’t know any exception to that rule, but if you think about it as paying for the real cost rather than subsidized food – with someone else paying the real cost for you, either in low wages or whatever.

  21. says

    (waves at Nic, there really can’t be that many of us off on our travels!)
    Merry, its a shame you and your community have such a great possible source of food and community spirit that’s just going to waste for now :(, I’m so envious of the local allotment site for the social aspect, as well as the food. Though in autumn we were sad to see good food rotting on the plants that the plot holders hadn’t been tending- I’ve I’d had known I would have ‘helped’. We’ve got fairly aware of food shopping choices, but its been over 5 years- we started buying a bit of organic, then were offered half an allotment, then another half (these were privately owned allotments), then found a veg box we could use around our own produce, then were introduced to another neighbour who did a SUma order, then realised we’d order enough for own order and Suma would accept neighbourhood coop orders….there’s no way I would have accepted the sheer effort ( as well as cost) of the way we shop now 5 years ago- I remember thinking friends 7 yrs ago were bonkers spending that much on organic food, we certainly didn’t appreciate it then.
    I’m definately convinced that just small steps, one at a time and suddenly you’ll look back to this post and be surprised at where you have gone!
    I also appreciate that to some people my family really have a long way to go with our shopping- we still get plastic packaging, shop regularly at supermarkets- and we won’t actually be growing our own this year, so although we’ll help others with their growing, we will probably be buying more things we’d normally not pay for (though many folk already seem to think we are bonkers :-) but I just work with them! ).
    I met a chap briefly last year, Barn the Spoon, who has the idea everyone should have a spoon hand carved particularly for them (he carves in greenwood, and was helping with a course my hubbie got to go on) and was travelling, asking for a meal and somewhere to sleep and in return he’d carve you a spoon. What a bargain! His work is beautiful, getting to meet the guy and spend time with a craftsman, and be given an item carved especially for you, all for just a meal and some floor space for him. No money changing hands, and everyone benefits. It makes me think that shopping can be overrated if you can exchange what you can do/what you have for something you have a need or use for. I guess I’m getting interested in getting away from currency…sort of linked to shopping!

    Finally, raised beds- If your patio is wood, it would eventually rot under the raised bed (no idea how long though, I guess depends what was done to the wood prior), but if its just flagstones we’ve done that in our yard.
    Thanks for the post and the following comments, its really got me thinking!

  22. Michelle says

    My lovely husband makes all of our bread (without the aid of a bread maker). He often makes the bread and after the initial prooving and shaping it goes into loaf tins overnight in the fridge to be baked in the morning. We buy flour in large sacks from Shipton mill and it works out to be very cost effective.

  23. Allie says

    We used to use a weekly delivery service that brought food from various local businesses but it bit the dust. I can’t say I’m surprised because it was just *so* much more expensive for the basics. (It also included the French patisserie, which introduced a weekly need for expensive pastries we would never otherwise have bought!)

    We get a weekly delivery from Ocado. It isn’t the ‘best’ choice we could make (local shops and lugging it home on the bus) but it is, we hope, better than using one of the cheaper but less ethically minded supermarkets. It’s a compromise. I fully intend to do more local shopping and carrying it home when the kids are older and I have more time…

    We do also have a little local market where we can get re-fills of all our Ecover cleaning products, which has certainly reduced the amount of plastic in our recycling bin. Re-fills are just so sensible. Whatever happened to getting 10p back on your pop bottles?

    Dani likes making bread (by hand) so we do get to enjoy that quite often and she can put in so much good stuff – seeds and oats and so on. Local market sells gorgeous ‘artisan bread’ but at £2.75 a loaf it’s not something we can live on all week.

    We’ve been on the allotment waiting list for about ten years (!) but we do get quite well fed by grandmothers’ allotment in the summer months. Watching them work has really made me realise that an allotment done ‘properly’ is not a hobby or a spare time activity – it demands serious committment.

  24. Amanda says

    the swapping is a new-ish thing and I’m hoping that there will be more of it this year. We always have loads of blackberries too many so I swap them with a friend who has lots of apples! A neighbour makes jam and uses our blackberries and in return leaves homemade jam (in jars!) on the doorstep! I give another friend tomato plants and in return DD has a day over there doing horsey stuff. I have’nt asked for anything and would be quite happy just give away but it is nice when someone shares with you. :) Swapping skills or time is something I’ve done in the past, if you think about it as parenting we often swap things, maybe we should do more. There is a lot to think about here in your post and the comments I really need to do more.

  25. says

    Surely baking bread can’t use *that* much electricity? A unit of leccy (1 kwh) is what around 8-9p? An oven is probably no more than 2kw, so would use that 8p up in 1/2 hour, but once up to temp it the elememt will be switched off a lot of the time. 10 p in leccy for a couple of loaves is probably an over estimate (bread make is probabl;y less overall). Add in the cost of flour and yeast and even if you buy expensive local stoneground organic flour, it must still be cost effective.

    Of course in part it depends on what you are comparing it against, sure a pappy sliced loaf from the supermarket is pretty cheap (Tesco Value 47p), but really that isn’t what you are goign to hopefully end up with, surely ti shouldbe compred against somethign that could reasonably be called bread 😉 ?

    I think quite a bit of it comes down to being aware of what possibilities are around, and being that bit more organised to take advantage of them, so you can fit them into life. E.g. everytime you drive home from ours you pass the potatoe farm. He will sell you a sack of his potatoes quite happily :-) (or his onions). If you drive through Abbots ripton you can stop and by some of Glebe Farms flour from the village shop (the grow and mill their own wheat etc.) – though they do mail order as well now.

    As for raised beds on the patio. It will work, it’s just abig container after all, though I’d want to make them reasonably deep (at least a foot). you can buy large bags for use as aptio planters as well nowadays

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