England & Wales, Global Communities and society, Covid-19

Covid-19: The story of a local plant nursery adapting to the ‘new normal’

Image by Jill Wellington from Pixabay

Janet Sillett found lessons in the versatility and importance of local businesses during this crisis – as well as some great plants – at her local nursery.

There are many great stories around us every day during this strange time. This one is about a local plant nursery I used to visit a lot.

Green Pastures is near Norwich – it’s a plant nursery, a small farm shop, a restaurant and has a post office. That’s quite rare – for nurseries to have a farm shop. It has a website but with no facility to buy online.

It was clear from before the lockdown that there would be restrictions soon and older people were being advised to stay home. The nursery and the farm shop saw a big rise in demand for items like seeds, seed potatoes and bags of potatoes. Once the lockdown happened the nursery and restaurant had to close to the public but wanted to carry on serving their loyal customers. The only way to do that was to start a home delivery service. This was set up very quickly indeed – with the website and facebook page advertising it. This had to be done through customers phoning in or emailing orders after seeing what was available online.

It proved to be very popular immediately. It was almost impossible to get online supermarket shopping slots and there were the queues at the shops and items running out. Green Pastures was able to fill the gaps – especially for older people and those without a car. And for customers like me we could order the plants we would normally go and choose at the nursery itself.

How many staff were kept at work? Under half of the 36 staff had to be furloughed – restaurant staff are helping with the orders, the picking and delivering. The restaurant cooks are making ready meals, pies, and cakes for home delivery and the farm shop. Everyone has been flexible. The post office proved essential when the nearest post office had to shut temporarily because of staff shortages.

It all sounds easy but, of course, it isn’t. Getting supplies can be difficult – there are shortages of supplies such as grow bags, compost and seeds. The compost suppliers in Ireland and Derbyshire shut down and new ones had to be found. The nursery is still continuing to grow plants though getting material is sometimes hard. The county council’s licensing department were very helpful in advising the business about how they should comply with regulations and what can be traded and what can’t.

This story can be repeated in so many places. But can it tell us anything about local businesses and food supply? First, it reflects how many small local businesses were able to quickly respond to a rapidly changing and difficult context. Some national businesses weren’t able to – the very large garden centres were shut down. The farm shops came to the rescue of local people when the supermarkets were struggling. Supermarkets in some cases had to cut delivery slots because of low stock. ‘Just in time’ warehouse systems were slow to be able to respond to a spike in demand and the shock to the supply chain.

This story reflects a wider story across the country – local food businesses had to respond fast and creatively. As restaurants closed, their local food suppliers changed to providing vegetable boxes and started home deliveries. The doorstop milkmen and women are now delivering eggs and bread, local honey and cheese. This isn’t a totally new phenomena – though Covid-19 has seen major change – local suppliers and growers across the UK have been forming networks for mutual support and some are part of movements like transition towns.

What Green Pastures, and many other business like them, tell us is that there is a resilient food system in many places which could react quickly to very tough and rapid change. Perhaps it also has lessons for society in showing the value of these kinds of businesses in addressing the climate emergency?

Councils are promoting local food like this online article from Torfaen County Borough encouraging local residents to use local businesses during the lockdown. Communities too are recognising how valuable many local suppliers are – of food and plants – during the pandemic, with new neighbourhood websites advertising what is now available. Of course life at some stage will return to a more normal feel – though when and by how much is anyone’s guess. But there are lessons to be learnt from how local places responded to the pandemic – the huge surge in volunteers showing what local communities are capable of for example. I think how the food system adapted locally in many places is another lesson we should all think about.

And the plants I ordered arrived this week – looking amazing.

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