OOOOBY: A MODEL OF ALTERNATIVE FOOD NETWORK - Federica Pozzi thesis


Federica Pozzi
University of Gastronomic Science, Italy
Master in Food, Culture and Communication
October 2009


INDEX

Introduction 3

Alternative food networks in Ireland 4

What is O.O.O.O.B.Y.? 8

O.O.O.O.B.Y. and Carraig Dulra: the Irish experiment 11

Conclusion 17





Introduction

This study is a report of an internship experience undertaken during the autumn of 2009 and conducted in Ireland, in Co. Wicklow, in a newly opened O.O.O.O.B.Y. (Out Of Our Own Back Yard) store. The store is supported by the image of an already existing didactic farm, Carraig Dulra (in Irish, Carraig is the name of the mountain close to the farm and Dulra stands for “the four elements or nature”); even though the two businesses are not economically related. The store does not sell the produce from Carraig Dulra farm at present: it sells fresh products such as vegetables and fruit, eggs, herbal plants and freshly baked goods from local producers. The purpose of the store is to create a link between local producers and consumers, in a venue that can be considered and used as a community exchange forum. Encouraging local producers, supporting local economy; creating a stronger community around food and sustainability, the O.O.O.O.B.Y. store aims to bring together people that can change and improve their lifestyle. In this sense, the store can be considered as a social entrepreneurial, and an example of alternative food network.
The store is the development of a buyers group that was set up by Mike and Suzie Cahn, the owners of Carraig Dulra. They have always been socially active and involved in community events. Their process began by creating a buyers group designed to access bulk organic products, not available locally. Satisfied by the buyers group, Mike and Suzie saw in what they were doing a lack of connection with the actual local community of producers. They saw in the buyers group itself the potential to become a platform to support local economy and healthy, home grown food. Not to mention, the possibility to let everybody in the community express their creativity by selling their own crafts and goods.
This paper will try to give a general overview on the Irish food scenario to be able to locate the O.O.O.O.B.Y. initiative in a food geography context. The analysis that will be conducted on the store will consider the choice of the already in use name: “O.O.O.O.B.Y.”, and its implications. It will also consider the practical issues of how an alternative food store comes across, and in these terms, the particular Irish context will be taken into consideration. To conclude, the analysis will try to define alternative food networks, and to scan the potential contradictions that come along with this type of business.

Alternative food networks in Ireland

It may be that, the diffusion of big corporation and supermarket chains on the Irish territory has now brought about a reaction in the form of the creation of alternative food networks, such as: eco, organic stores, vegetarian restaurants, organic centers, seed savers association, transition towns and eco-villages.
The food production scenario that Italy or France are associated with, is intrinsically ingrained with cultural and social identity, however, in contrast Ireland has remained more generic in terms of local food productions. Ireland has not placed the same importance of desiring to support the local products, and give them a European designation and value through certifications like PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) or PGI (Protected Geographical Indication). Therefore, Ireland has totally different reference points historically, which influenced their definition of what is good food.
The professor of geography from the University College Cork, Colin Sage, (2001) tried to define what good food means for Irish people in his study and came to the conclusion that good food complies to the Levi Strauss definition as something which is good to think.
Good food is conceived as such when it gives away the idea of authenticity, when it is directly derived from a person or a place. In Ireland in particular, good food is strongly associated with spaces that are sites of transaction. Good food does not refer to gourmet products, but more likely to quality local productions, fresh and traceable ingredients (Sage 2001).
Using the definition given in a recent study on Californian alternative food networks, (Allen et al. 2003), we could use the term “anonymous local” for the definition of good food in Ireland. Local food enables a relationship of aid and trust between producer and consumer by cutting off the “middle man”, the reseller. This is in contrast to European quality productions that differentiate according to particular characteristics attached to a terrain or a territory. The reduced food chain “internalize(s) the externalities of conventional agriculture” (Allen et al. 2003, p.64), paying the full cost of food production directly, rather than indirectly through displaced environmental and social harm.

In the past twenty-five years, there has been a rise of networks of producers, growers and retailers. Many factors were involved in the change; the consumers’ behaviour being the main one (Sage 2001). Also, the study on Californian alternative food networks (Allen et al. 2003) notices what the alliance is amongst customers to make the actual difference, and create the possibility of alternative food places.
People like to reduce the food supply chain and be able to interact directly with the producers. In that sense, places like farmers’ markets and food co-operatives are the perfect venues to give the consumers the idea of restored authenticity, and belonging to the place where they live and shop. Alternative food networks offer alternatives to the main stream shopping, but are also places where the food economy can be “remoralised” (Sage 2007): people re-establish a direct contact with their food stuff, they do not want to shop in impersonal places where they just pick their items and scan them at the automatic counter. Consumers want to see with their eyes and touch with their hands the places of production, and the main actors of the production, the producers.
A good example of this is given by Colin Sage (idem). Caroline and Eddie Robinson are producers from CO. Cork. They are supported by a loyal clientele, which is the strong key for the success of small artisan productions. Their success and their ability to attract their loyal customers lay in their “annual farm walk” initiative. They open the farm once a year, hosting a party with a barbecue. The event attracts over hundred people. This is their way to build strong social capital with consumers, and it seems to work well. This proves that people like to see the production site and feel part of the whole making process.

In Co. Wicklow, where the O.O.O.O.B.Y. store, which is going to be the main object of this paper, is based there are some alternative food networks and a growing awareness in some sectors towards local, fresh and organic food. “Farmers’ markets, country markets, food co-operatives, community gardens, school gardens, Transition Town movements have begun to develop over the last few years.”

Unfortunately the proportion of agricultural land farmed organically in Ireland is 0.5% of the total of farmed land (Sage 2001). This means that most of the organic products sold in stores are imported from abroad. In this situation people seem not to mind the food miles issue because eating organic is more of a healthy lifestyle choice, rather than environmental. Organic imported food is very expensive though and not always affordable. Irish consumers crave organic food and influence the national food economy, but the government has taken limited action towards the possibility of supporting local organic productions.
Perhaps, this is the reason why social networks such as community gardens and allotment schemes, school gardens, GIY (Grow It Yourself) clubs, Transition Town movements are so popular in Ireland. People as consumers, must do something, they must take an individual or local based action if they want to eat healthier. Therefore, associations that promote gardening and home food making skills are welcome by the consumers.

What is O.O.O.O.B.Y.?

O.O.O.O.B.Y. is an acronym that stands for: Out Of Our Own Back Yard. The idea and the name for this alternative food network model were conceived in New Zealand by Pete Russell, an Australian that has always been involved in the food industry.
Pete Russell used to work as a managing director for a big food company that imported frozen goods from Europe. “My vision at the time was to build a multi-national food logistics company managing the movement of food all around the globe” (Russell 2009).

When he moved to New Zealand his plan was to build distribution channels in Asia and Australia for New Zealand produce:
“Shortly after arriving in Auckland I attended a presentation by Sue Kedgley, who is a Member of Parliament with a particular political interest in food. I imagined that the talk might have been about New Zealand's national strategy to develop their food export opportunities. She had recently returned from being the NZ delegate at the World Food Forum held in Rome, April 2008. This was a high level conference attended by over 180 member countries in response to an accelerating increase of reports which suggested a global food crisis” (idem).

Against his expectations:
“Sue presented credible evidence that we are in fact entering a global food crisis and that the globalized food system was doing a great deal of damage in the social, economic and environmental arena” (idem).

Pete Russell considered the talk from his subjective perspective as a food trader and decided to make a change not only towards his career, but also towards his lifestyle.
“As I sat in the community hall listening to Sue's talk, it occurred to me that the chronic ills of our current food situation were caused by models and systems that had been built by people, like me, in pursuit of an evermore efficient and lucrative way of providing food to the people of the world. (…) After a few months of investigating the current global food situation, I became convinced that local food systems are the way of the future” (idem).

O.O.O.O.B.Y. is an alternative food network that was conceived by a man that used to think globally, and therefore saw the potential of spreading and supporting local economic models globally. Like any other alternative food network, it was conceived in a particular context according to the politics, economics, climate, needs, or traditions, of any given local community. Creating an online community dedicated to O.O.O.O.B.Y. , spread the idea quickly and world-wide. Pete Russell’s idea mushroomed when the O.O.O.O.B.Y. template began to be shared over the internet; although it was welcomed as a concept, it needed to be adapted to an Irish context.
“Alternative food networks fight the opposition between militant particularism and global ambition” (Allen et al. 2003, p.64). This is exactly the situation in which O.O.O.O.B.Y. is at the moment, trying not to loose its particularism, but at the same time trying to become able to create a global model for food communities. This means O.O.O.O.B.Y. is, attached to a place, but can actually reach out across space (Allen et al. 2003).

O.O.O.O.B.Y. is a network of food growers that gather together as a club of people passionate about gardening. O.O.O.O.B.Y. is a store, and as such, has a venue that can be private or public; there are suppliers that do not have to be necessarily local; there are consumers that are looking for particular food items which usually answer to the definition of organic, local, fresh and fair trade – one of these words at least, or a combination of them. The store wants to involve the community to a high level of interaction, exactly like a food co-operative would do. O.O.O:O.B.Y. stores import from all over the world, when local produce is not available.
The aim is not to close national or local borders to foreign products. Bananas are an import and an example of an item that has become popular in our European diet; however, this does not mean that an O.O.O.O.B.Y. store would not supply them, but would inform consumers how they have been imported and from where. Awareness and connection to the land are the main issues that the network wants to raise attention to. The idea that bananas are available to all of us all year round can make us forget what is available locally. We stopped living with the seasons and following the rhythm of nature. The reconnection with nature and seasons is the key message. This is why food growing is such an important part of the O.O.O.O.B.Y. network.

Pete Russell developed the O.O.O.O.B.Y. project also creating an OOOOBYversity group, which is a club of people passionate about gardening that like to meet and exchange knowledge on gardening, trade seeds and pass on experience.

Another part of the big plan is ROOOOBY, which is an alternative currency to pay the items sold at the shop. One ROOOOBY equals one dollar. With the introduction of this alternative currency the store becomes a swapping venue, rather than just one of the million shops where people can spend their money.

Despite this fact, O.O.O.O.B.Y. is not defined by his founder as a charity or a not for profit business, but as a social entrepreneurial. The business must pay off the cost of the venue, the cost of labour, and should also be able to have some more money to invest in community projects such as; allotments, community gardens, gardening, permaculture and Transition Town trainings.

O.O.O.O.B.Y. and Carraig Dulra: the Irish experiment

Carraig Dulra is a didactic farm. Suzie and Mike Cahn, the owners, do not invest too much time in production: their aim is not to become producers, but to teach people about nature and a natural lifestyle. Their slogan, printed on their Volkswagen van is “Back to nature: living skills bank.”

The farm house does not exist yet: there is just a piece of land. The couple lives with their four children in two Mongolian Ghers. They do not have running water, except a low pressure ram pump which supplies cold water to fill a tea pot, or to wash up a few plates. There is a compost toilet, but no shower. The kitchen is open, with a roof and two walls. Obviously there is no refrigerator!
Suzie is a gardener at the farm and is a gardening and permaculture educator, also involved in the Transition Town movement; and is involved in setting up and supporting community gardens, both nationally and in the Wicklow area.
The O.O.O.O.B.Y. store was Mike’s idea borne out his experience of previously establishing a buyers group few years ago, when he placed orders from an organic cash and carry company for friends and family. Mike and Suzie talked about the creation of a food co-operative when they discovered how central was food in their philosophy of life and in the values they were fighting for. They came across the name O.O.O.O.B.Y. by chance, and without knowing exactly what an O.O.O.O.B.Y. store was, they just found it nice and explicative. O.O.O.O.B.Y. is meant to be the expression of their work at the farm; the centre where all the backstage work (production, gardening, art and craft etc.) that leads to the creation of a social group that can be brought together and become visible and useful for the community. What the buyers group was lacking of was fresh and locally sourced produce. An O.O.O.O.B.Y. store would have embraced these two concepts and expanded and improved the idea of a buyers group, gathering and supporting local producers.

County Wicklow in Ireland is a small county where people are still very attached to the land and alternative movements such as permaculture, Transition Town and farmers’ markets are popular. There are a lot of people who are very sensitive to food and environmental issues. However, it is also part of the commuter belt for Dublin city and, as such, has a mainstream population who shop in supermarkets and work outside of the county.

Mike and Suzie had the idea clear in their minds, but they needed somebody to give definitions, and a theoretical framework from an outside view to what they were doing. This would add value and credibility to the O.O.O.O.B.Y. store. They needed a person with general and fresh knowledge on food issues to understand what they were actually doing and to give a shape to their own creation. They also needed somebody who would take care of the public relations and the communication aspect of the business, as well as the general administration. Mike has always worked on the computer dealing with logistical issues rather than with people, whereas Suzie has always worked on the field and with people in a teaching environment rather than with public relations.

I started as an intern to work with Mike and Suzie at the O.O.O.O.B.Y. store. The venue was not organized; it had two shelves, a sink, a table and some stock items from the Wholefood cash and carry. The local suppliers were four: a family friend would supply fresh duck eggs, another local organic farm, hens, eggs, a couple that is also working at the country market proposed to come to sell their own vegetables and a local ice cream maker supplied the store with his production. Suzie’s father’s small production of grapes would be available sometimes. That was it!

The website mentioned the existence of the O.O.O.O.B.Y. store and Mike created a page dedicated to it, with an online catalogue where people could browse for staple products to preorder and pick up once at the store on Saturdays.
The initial idea was to open the store during the weekdays just for placing orders on site, or to come collect the already placed orders. The suppliers would have been present at the store with their local production only on Saturdays, which were also considered as pick up days. The open days were then reduced to Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. Saturdays was the most important open day, with producers on site from 11.30 to 3.30. The newsletters were already sent out mainly with a list of the farm Carraig Dulra events, but they were not always consistent. O.O.O.O.B.Y. did not have a logo and an image. The need for a logo came when we needed to get a road sign to display on the street, in front of the store, to attract people’s attention.
The job roles were not clear, and everybody would do everything at the same time. We cleaned the store and put the place together; Mike would fix the ceiling, making sure there were not leaks in it. We organized the venue placing items on the shelves, creating a comfortable and welcoming environment for customers to call in and shop. We tried to get in contact with local suppliers or private individuals interested in selling their own produce on Saturdays. We promoted the store on the internet communities, through flyers and sending press releases to the local media.

Due to the small business scale, all the decisions were taken through a brain storming process involving myself, Suzie, Mike, and whoever else would come along. This gave me the possibility to practice all the theoretical knowledge acquired throughout the year on different field: theories on the global food situation; the logistics of food business; marketing strategies, advertising and communication.

Choosing a logo for the store is not just a random and quick decision process because it is going to affect the whole image and message that the store will then give away. Choosing the suppliers is an important decision that must take into consideration the philosophy of the store: what is important to supply locally; what is important to supply fresh and why.
Local media is not strong or consistent; sending a press release usually resulted with an end published article with no editing. This is why we came to the decision to send them already pre-constructed articles. Along with advertising the launch of the store, we also sent pictures that would report on our Saturdays with the market atmosphere, even though it took more than a month to get to a decent number of people showing up to shop. When we noticed that we were lacking in suppliers we decided to send to the local press an article that would explicitly look for people willing to sell their baked goods, their preserved jams and chutneys and whatever artisan production they might want to show and sell. The store could not survive without the community support on the two fronts; the sellers and the customers. Finding a balance between these was critical. We got the article published and noticed a good feedback: people would call in at the store proposing themselves as sellers of food and craft works. We slowly saw results of the advertising and publicity campaigns. Whereas newsletters were self-referential and would get through to people already engaged with the farm principles; articles on the local magazines and flyers campaign would reach people that would not know about the existence of an alternative food network in Glenealy, Co. Wicklow, and the possibility of an alternative lifestyle in their local community.

The official launch of the store happened after a month from the opening date. To reinforce O.O.O.O.B.Y., Suzie and Mike decided to host in the venue the launch of the GIY (Grow It Yourself) Wicklow local group. GIY is a national not-for-profit movement founded by a famous Irish food writer Michael Kelly. The network helps growers to gather and to share skills, to support each other and to exchange seeds on a local scale. Michael Kelly is traveling throughout Ireland to give a first talk to the public, introducing the GIY concepts and philosophy. Having Michael Kelly over at the O.O.O.O.B.Y. store sounded great from a media point of view and also to give more strength, visibility and acceptability to an already existing food community.
The launch, the 17th of October 2009, was a big success, with a lot of people showing up; many vendors coming with their own produce; a lot of sales were made, with a lot of curious and enthusiastic interest. A national television show presenter, Duncan Stewart, came to film Suzie and Mike’s farm and food co-operative for a programme on sustainable living called Eco Eye. The local radio and the local magazine raised attention for the social activist couple, and invited them for interviews.

Conclusion

The Irish O.O.O.O.B.Y. store did not have the intention to export a pre-existent model in another scenario. Suzie and Mike got the idea from the New Zealand experiment and they decided to develop it according to the local needs and availabilities.

Differently from the Californian situation, where alternative food networks were mainly an urban creation to respond to a lost relationship with nature (Allen et al. 2003), Mike and Suzie are directly related to the land and the food production. Suzie tried to become a producer herself and knows how difficult is nowadays to make a living as a small artisan producer. This brings a higher level of awareness into the whole project, which focuses on consumers needs, but also on a producers’ point of view. However, both Mike and Suzie feel that re-connecting to nature is central to all their activities in the community and in developing their family’s lifestyle.

The choice of the name O.O.O.O.B.Y. was a courageous choice. From one point of view this meant that the food co-operative could be supported by the already existing model and online network, www.ooooby.org. On the other hand, the name O.O.O.O.B.Y. is definitely more mysterious than a simple and straight forward “food co-operative” or “eco-store” or “country market”. For this reason, the advertising campaign had to be very specific and detailed: people were receiving advertising and informative material at the same time. Education and information have been part of the strategy since the very beginning. Not only were we promoting an alternative type of business, but also an unknown name full of hidden meaning.

The store was in competition with the already well established country market, which is a very traditional food swapping venue that “has been in existence for 60 years in the republic of Ireland since the inception of the Free State” (Jones 2009). The country market is used to encourage small producers to sell their over production, not necessarily having an active business related to their produce. The O.O.O.O.B.Y. store concept is exactly the same. It encourages people to express their skills and come as private individuals to sell their own baked goods; their vegetables from the back garden; their special recipe for bread; their willow crafts and any other generic art and craft.

However, the aim is broader as the venue is open for all different community activities such as classes on food education, cookery demonstration, craft workshops, gardening club (GIY), and vegetarian cuisine exchange. The objective is to use the food co-operative as a base for community development, and not as the main key point of O.O.O.O.B.Y.
In a context where people crave good food, and want to re-establish their relationship with producers, O.O.O.O.B.Y. finds a lot of room for its initiatives. People are happy to see a local store opening, they are happy to find a place where to gather and exchange experience, skills and information. Customers come to the store with different purposes, but everybody there is definitely looking for direct some human contact, a quality lost in the main stream food system ruled by supermarkets. Also in a buyers’ group community, where food is just food, you can place the monthly order and be over and done with it instantly, without the human interaction. At O.O.O.O.B.Y. food is not just food; it is a community unifier, a community entity and hub.

O.O.O.O.B.Y. has great potential as a food network and can become a good global model, which is something Pete Russell is working on at the moment. He did not put a copyright on O.O.O.O.B.Y., which means that there are no restrictions in the use of the name for food co-operatives. At the same time the name could be misused by people for advertising and marketing reasons. The contradiction is: shall O.O.O.O.B.Y. become a more established entity and loose part of the activist-side that was born with; or shall it remain a local scale and particular alternative food network?

A parallel movement to the O.O.O.O.B.Y. is the Transition Town movement which emerged in 2001 in an adult education class in Kinsale, co Cork, run by Rob Hopkins. It looked at how at a small local level people could engage with a process that would lead to a positive sustainable future. The idea spread and became a movement when Rob Hopkins moved to Totnes in the UK, and brought the process with him. Since then 300 communities in the UK and 2000 world wide have become Transition communities. When the movement began it was activist in nature, but some elements of the movement have now become more formalized, for example Transition UK are now incorporated (Hopkins & Lipman 2009). This created different reactions among the followers from several countries, who are now thinking whether to sign and accept the burocratic aspect of the movement or not.

The same situation could happen to O.O.O.O.B.Y. in the foreseeable future and common sense and acceptance must be taken into consideration then, not to loose the revolutionary aspect of the project and to bring it to a global scale, with no loss, or introduction of generalizations.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Sage, C. 2001, ‘Embeddedness and the geography of regard: (agro-)food networks in South West Ireland’, International perspective on alternative agro-food networks: quality, embeddedness, bio-politics, no.12-13, October.

Sage, C. 2007, ‘Trust in markets: Economies of regard and spaces of contestation in alternative food networks’, in Cross, J. & Morales, A., (eds), Street entrepreneurs: people, place & politics in local & global perspective, Routledge, London, Chapter 9.

Allen, P., FitzSimmons, M., Goodman, M. & Warner, K. 2003, ‘Shifting plates in the agrifood landscape: the tectonics of alternative agrifood initiatives in California’, Journal of Rural Studies, vol.19, pp. 61–75.

Website Articles

Hopkins, R. & Lipman, P. 2009, Who we are and what we do, online, retrieved October 2009, from http://transitiontownsireland.ning.com.

Russell, P. 2009, The story of Ooooby, retrieved October 2009, from https://ooooby.ning.com/profiles/blogs/the-story-of-ooooby.

Thesis

Jones, R.P. 2009, Can Country Markets Act as a Seedbed for Entrepreneurship?, Business and Entrepreneurship dissertation, Dublin Institute of Technology.

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Comment by Pete Russell on November 26, 2009 at 8:01am
This is great Fede. You have captured the essence of what ooooby is about ... for me anyway. Your last few paragraphs are interesting and I look forward to seeing a model that is both community owned and provides real livelihoods for lots of people. Congratulations on a great piece of work.

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