Betwixt & Between

Issue #5

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Brokering shorter food supply chains

Abstract: How can we meet the growing demand from consumers who want lower cost, quality and tasty food and want to know where it comes from and how it is produced? One solution is to cut out intermediaries and shorten the social and geographical distance between consumers and food producers. This raises the important challenge of working out ways of organising geographically dispersed smallholders and family farms into food systems, which can provide quality food at scale and in a systematic and sustained way. The need is to organise collaborative arrangements with farmers in order to access markets, mobilise resources and gain political influence in ways which engage them as partners for consumers and other stakeholders in co-creating food systems. Partnership brokering is key to this co-creating process, which is always unfinished. In this article, the author uses the example of the Malopolska region in Poland to illustrate how partnership brokering can  play a central role in shortening the food supply chain by organising farmers and small food producers into a collaborating and self-organising partnership aimed at increasing access to locally-produced food.


In North America and Europe, consumers are demanding quality food at lower cost, but with a growing preference for food that is healthy, tasty, organic/eco-friendly and safe. Eating responsibly is becoming an important part of efforts to promote healthier and more sustainable lifestyles. Consumers want food that is readily accessible and to know where their food comes from and how it is produced[1].

Shortening food chains

One response to such consumer demand lies in organising local or short food chain systems (Box 1). [2]

Box 1 : What are short food chains?A food chain describes the distance between a food producer and a food consumer. In contemporary agro-industrial systems, food chains are complex with numerous intermiediaries:Short food chains have as few links as possible between the food producer and the citizen who eats the food. Agreeing on a maximum number of links (or intermediaries) is difficult because the number of intermediaries needed varies for different products, in different places.  For example, there is a debate about whether ‘service providers’ such as abattoirs should be counted as part of the chain.The reasons for having reduced links in the chain are the most important factor when considering whether a food chain is ‘short’ or not.  ‘Short’ food chains are not simply reducible to the number of links in the chain, because they are concerned with a set of values and principles and address societal demands:

  • The citizen who eats the food knows exactly where the food comes from and can contact the producer directly for information – in other words the food chain is transparent [addressing citizen demand for food that can be trusted]
  • The producer is able to retain a greater share of the value of the food that is sold [addressing producer need to sustain or expand their income]
  • The ‘social proximity’ between producers and citizens is of more importance than the ‘physical distance’ [addressing societal demands for a better, more equitable and sustainable food system].

They shorten the geographic and economic distance between producers and consumers, reducing costs, decreasing environmental impacts and assuring security of supply, and access to quality, tasty food of known local origin[3]. Above all, they help develop the local economy.

Fair trade, urban farming, growing your own, food cooperatives, consumer supported agriculture, farmers’ markets and connecting directly with farmers are all variations on a single theme – accessing food of known origin[4]. Such initiatives are also a response or alternative to the increasingly industrialised agri-systems based on long and complex food supply chains, which involve numerous intermediaries, including wholesalers, distributors, food processors and sales people.

But how do we achieve shorter food supply chains and local food systems capable of providing locally-produced quality food for consumers at scale and in a systematic and sustained way?. Partnership brokering can play a key role in organising farmers and consumers and other stakeholders in food systems into collaborating groups or partnerships focused on shortening food chains. By organising food producers, especially small farmers and agricultural smallholders, it can help them gain improved access to markets, to mobilise resources and to increase their political representation and influence in economy and society.  They can become more proactive participants in re-defining food systems.

Organising small farmers

Smallholder agriculture with its focus on subsistence and small-scale agri-production is central to shortening food supply chains. For this reason, there is growing interest in both developed and developing countries in redefining the contribution of small farmers and agricultural smallholders in our food systems. There is growing conviction that smallholder agriculture can be part of the solution not only to providing healthier food, but also to alleviating poverty, combating social and economic exclusion, protecting natural and cultural heritage, ensuring food security, as well as maintaining ecological life-support systems while revitalising local economies[5].

The European Union is placing more emphasis on small farms by drawing attention to their multi-functional role in economy and society in agricultural policies and recognising shortened food supply chains as a priority for innovation. The agricultural smallholders that still characterise the agricultural sectors in Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Spain, Greece and Portugal are coming to be recognised as resources and opportunities as opposed to something that should be consigned to the past[6].

The Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO) is also drawing attention to the role and contribution of smallholder agriculture. In an increasingly global world dominated by corporations, it may be surprising to some that family farming remains the predominant form of agriculture in the food production sector in both developed and developing countries. According to the FAO, the majority of the world’s 570 million farms are small and operated by families. Smallholders contribute as much as 70% of food produced! Although it is important to note that most food produced is not traded or is traded locally with only about a quarter of food produced transiting through the global market [7].

The implication is that local food systems favouring smallholder agriculture should be promoted and developed more strongly where they already exist and revitalised or restored where they have been displaced by large-scale industrial agri-systems, with their complex food chains comprising numerous intermediaries[8]. But how might this be achieved?

One promising approach is to focus on linking people, places and products in ways that generate a virtuous circle that brings increased income to local producers who organise joint action to connect with consumers by building brand value of their products by promoting their origin. The FAO has produced a practical guide and an on-line tool to guide this approach (see

Partnership brokering is needed because collaboration or partnership must encompass not just farmers and consumers, but also other stakeholders in the local food system, including public agencies, community groups, media, schools, researchers. It can provide the ‘bonding factor’ or ‘glue’ that brings in and keeps the farmers’ and the farming perspective in the forefront. The focus must be on farmers because operating in isolation, farmers are not able to deal with market failures, institutional barriers, systemic weaknesses and skills or knowledge gaps. An investment in partnership brokering in this way is an investment in building local food systems as transformative partnerships, which over time build the skills, knowledge, know-how and markets that enable them to self-organise and sustain themselves, generating benefits for all participating partners.

Learning from Malopolska (Poland)

The proposition is that – given the right conditions – smallholder agriculture and family farming can play a serious role in providing quality food to the communities in which they operate. Put simply, family farming coupled with small-scale food production can become a realistic alternative to the heavily subsidized industrial farming systems that are seeking to dominate global agriculture. For this to happen, the food chain from field to fork must be shortened.The challenge is to find ways of stimulating the growth and development of short food supply chains both in terms of the numbers of producers involved and in the volumes traded so as to increase farm incomes and contribute to nutrition or food security.

An ambitious initiative aimed at using a partnership approach to create a local food system, which can achieve scale as a market-oriented venture and turn the liability of a fragmented agrarian structure into an asset or opportunity for securing nutrition and food security is under way in the Malopolska region in Poland. This is a region of 142,900 small and highly fragmented privately-owned farm holdings, averaging 4 ha in size. Poland as a whole still has over a million small farms.

Local Products from Malopolska is a local food system through which producers from 10 territories in Malopolska connect with consumers (see The focus is on shortening the food supply chain by organising farmers and small food producers into a collaborating and self-organising group in order to increase access to locally-produced food for people living and visiting the Malopolska region. Agricultural smallholders and small producers have recognised that working together brings many advantages, especially through market access through farmers’ markets, on farm-sales, restaurants, internet sales and other distribution channels.

With its many agricultural holdings, Poland’s Malopolska region represents an opportunity to turn increasingly socially and economically excluded rural areas into a resource for building food security for rural and urban populations based on access to locally-produced food of known-origin (traceable). Regional and local governments are recognising that making locally-produced food coupled with increasing smallholder incomes is important for revitalising rural economies in ways that combat poverty and social exclusion, while contributing to the protection of natural and cultural heritage values and food security.  The commitment to building and strengthening local food systems is now an important part of the Regional Government’s strategy for the years 2014-2020.

Local Products from Malopolska was initiated in 2011 by the Polish Environmental Partnership Foundation – an NGO supporting grassroots environmental action. It is co-created by a group of approximately 100 farmers/producers and about 15 local NGO, business and public sector partners, including the regional government authorities. The ambition is to organise sales of an ever wider range of locally-produced food products directly to consumers, engaging more and more farmers, smallholders and producers through a process of building trust and reputation as a means for creating and maintaining short value chains.

The approach involves an ongoing process of identifying local and regional-scale stakeholders (especially producers) aimed at turning them into partners who share in the risks, costs and benefits of building Local Products from Malopolska as a trademark encompassing local brands, with its own farmer support, quality control, marketing and promotion, sales and distribution and governance. Those participating in Local Products from Malopolska are also campaigning for a more favourable policy and regulatory environment for local farmers as local food producers and for local food systems, especially with respect to food safety and tax regulations.

The key to starting-up Local Products from Malopolska was designing a long term project based on bringing together people, organisations and resources sharing a common motivation and philosophy (i.e. commitment to grassroots action, co-creation with those affected, environmental protection, local democracy) but operating through largely unconnected action-oriented initiatives, projects and programmes – mostly not directly related to food.

The role of the Environmental Partnership Foundation was to provide the ‘bonding factor’ and an organising framework (conceptual and practical) with a vision, a method and a process-oriented programme of work to achieve that vision based on linking people, products and places. Inspiration and frameworks for action came from the FAO via a Swiss organisation – Reseau Echange Development Durable (REDD) – and its work on origin-based food systems (, which resulted in a guide (Vandecandelaere et al. 2010). This has served to inform the Malopolska project and provided the basis for a three-year fundraising effort, which resulted in the Foundation securing funding support from the Swiss-Polish Cooperation Programme (a government-administered grants programme) for a 5-year project to develop a self-financing local food system focused on Malopolska – starting in August 2011.

Partnership Brokering

When it initiated Local Products from Malopolska as a partnership project, the Foundation had expertise primarily in mobilising grassroots environmental projects through cross-sector partnerships. The Foundation did not have access to specialised expertise related to food systems, farming, agri-processing, food marketing and distribution and so forth. Moreover, the organisation was perceived (if at all) as an environmental NGO by local and national government, business, media and other NGOs. In this regard, the Foundation was not associated strongly with agriculture, food and rural development issues and was largely unknown among public and private agricultural support providers – and indeed among farmers.

In this situation, the Foundation built an alliance with the Malopolska Agricultural Chamber, which formally represents farmers. The Director of the Chamber joined the Foundation’s board of trustees and helped shape the Local Products from Malopolska project from the very beginning. He helped the project team engage with agriculture and rural development organisations and networks and drawing attention to the importance of campaigning for more flexible hygiene rules for small producers as compared to those demanded of large-scale food producers.

It became apparent at this early stage that success of the project in building up a functioning local food system would depend on the extent to which the potential of small farmers and smallholders selling directly to consumers – both individual consumers and institutional consumers (e.g. schools, hospitals etc) – could be realised. In this regard, an important need lay in understanding better the opportunities, barriers and conditions to direct selling by farmers. This prompted the Foundation to join forces with the Agricultural Chamber and relevant food safety authorities (veterinary service, sanitary inspectorate) to carry out a programme of consultations with farmers operating in Malopolska. In the winter of 2012/2013, a consultation programme involving over 40 meetings, involving over 1000 farmers was completed, building up a picture of the over-regulated realities of direct food sales in Poland, as well as a constituency of support for the Local Products from Malopolska initiative.

The key challenge identified was the lack of clear or well-defined framework for organising short value chain food systems based on direct selling both from the point of view of farmers (who simply lack the legal basis for direct sales of processed food products) and of consumers (who increasingly demand locally-grown food of known origin). The information and insights gathered from local farmers, officials from the food inspectorate, tax offices, local governments, agricultural advisors prompted the Foundation and its constituency of farmers, NGOs and other organisations committed to promoting locally-produced food to launch a campaign entitled Legalise Local Food. The campaign is now bringing about regulatory changes in food safety and tax systems to enable the development of local food systems based on shortening the value chain.

The lesson learned is that it is not easy to build a constituency and secure partners through a partnership-building process, where no-one is in charge by definition. Leadership and shared responsibility is emergent. Success depends on the interaction of all involved. Trust must be earned through practical action, it cannot be manufactured or mimicked. But once trust and reputation is achieved stability and sustainability follow.

Constituency Building

Emphasising a constituency-building function, Local Products from Malopolska has sought to gain the trust of consumers by connecting them directly with farmers / producers through generating sales opportunities rather than focusing on labelling or branding schemes. This has meant on the one hand working with farmers and food producers – organising them into a group with its own sense of identity and self-worth and on the other with consumers to provide them with ready access to locally-produced food. The key to all this effort is increasing sales and income for the farmers and local food producers involved. This means building market value of Local Products from Malopolska through a collaboration that enables and favours joint selling over acting alone. The core of Local Products from Malopolska is thus an ongoing process of defining and re-defining (and enforcing!) a set of set of rules, according to which the scheme functions. The set of rules is simultaneously, a vision, charter and a code of practice defining what Local Products from Malopolska is and aspires to be – that was developed through a process of consultations and workshops, involving also non-farmer stakeholders and consumers. The code of practice has been adopted jointly as the basis for building Local Products from Malopolska as a trademark attesting to the authenticity and traceability of producers participating in the system and products offered for sale through a range of distribution channels, including shops, farmers’ markets, restaurants, on-farm sales and IT ordering and delivery systems.

In this way, the system is being grown and developed not as an alternative or competitor to existing brands and certification schemes, but as a trademark of a sales and distribution system that adds value by communicating to consumers the authenticity and traceability of products offered for sale. In this approach, farmers and food producers are co-authors of the code-of-practice and also responsible for ensuring compliance. The philosophy and method is to ensure that each and every producer participating in Local Products from Malopolska is responsible for quality and authenticity assurance. The voice and contribution of the farmers and food producers is essential but not sufficient. The partnership must take into account the needs, requirements and aspirations of consumers, especially the growing demand for locally-grown food of known (traceable) origin.

The lesson is that the code of practice is always unfinished. This is because it must be lived and enforced through a mechanism of mutual trust rather than (costly) external policing. Success in this regard has the potential for significantly decreasing costs and increasing competitiveness in the market place. In its partnership brokering role, the Foundation has sought to create a space or framework for initiatives, projects and programmes generated by those participating in and co-creating Local Products from Malopolska. In this sense, the system is self-organizing and always adapting and evolving to the needs, circumstances and opportunities of both farmers and consumers.

A farmers’ market in Krakow has operated for nearly 3 years as a joint selling initiative and serves do verify, consolidate and turn the code-of-practice into a cultural or living scheme – emphasising that it is not possible to short-cut or substitute a personalised relationship between buyer and seller. The personal is key to the trust-building basis of Local Products from Malopolska.

Food systems as innovation

Malopolska experience in brokering local food systems is relevant also for many regions in Europe and North America, which have lost their small farmers and their capability for growing and producing food locally. It is a resource for urban farming movements so prominent in the ‘Old Europe’ which are driving a desire to rediscover, reinvent and restore local food systems that many still remember. Polish small farmers represent an opportunity and resource for local food systems that need to be brokered locally, regionally and internationally. Every region or territory must develop its own local food system, which is adapted to local needs, circumstances and opportunities. There is no recipe or blue-print. Only a partnership building process for mobilising people and resources that can be shared, enriched and learned. An important innovation opportunity relates to using partnership action to overcome barriers to achieving scale to meeting the growing demand for locally-produced food direct from farmers[9]. In many parts of Europe this relates to a lack of small farms. But in Malopolska, the chief difficulty lies in finding ways of sourcing larger volumes from small, dispersed and subsistence-oriented farming. A possible answer lies in two developments. First, scaling up a collaborative or partnership based quality / authenticity assurance system (as a basis for building brand value) by involving also government and corporates not just as stakeholders, but as co-creating partners. And second, scaling up of distribution channels / sales opportunities to cater for a larger number and variety of small producers through innovative IT and logistical systems, which can bring consumers the variety, diversity and seasonality of locally-produced food in a way that fits into changing lifestyles, which emphasise healthy and responsible eating.


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Arias, P., Hallam, D., Krivonos, E., & Morrison, J. (2013). Smallholder integration in changing food markets Smallholder integration in changing food markets FAO: Rome.

Blissett, G. (2009) An appetite for change: How an interconnected approach to food supply management can help food growers, producers, sellers and consumers—and planet Earth. IBM Global Business Services White Paper. Download:

Conner, C., Colasanti, K, Ross, R. B and  S. Smalley (2010) Locally Grown Foods and Farmers Markets: Consumer Attitudes and Behaviors.  Sustainability 2010 (2):742-756; doi:10.3390/su2030742 (

European Coordination Via Campesina (2011) Small farms and short supply chains in the European Union. Position paper.

FAO (2014) Family farmers feeding the world, caring for the Earth: why is family farming important?

Friends of the Earth (2015) From farm to folk: public support for local and sustainable food. Download:

Grimm, J. (2009) Food urbanism: a design option for urban communities. Iowa State University. Download:

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King, R., et al (2010) Comparing the Structure, Size and Performance of Local and Mainstream Food

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Rafal SerafinRafal Serafin is a PBAS accredited partnership broker who has been focused on using partnership brokering to develop local food systems in Poland ( He is also contributing to (& benefiting from) a focus group on innovative short food supply chains organised by the European Partnership for Innovation in the field of Agriculture. See:

He has been President of the Polish Environmental Partnership Foundation since 1994 and has been contributing to efforts to move Poland towards a more sustainable future through partnership action (for more see: Internationally, he has been active in environmental and partnership work in North America and Europe and also in Pakistan.

Rafal can be reached by email on or by telephone  +48-601-402117.

Acknowledgement: the Malopolska Local Product project is co-financed through a grant awarded to the Polish Environmental Partnership Foundation under the Swiss-Polish Cooperation Programme.




[1] (Conner et al., 2010; Kneafsey et al. 2013; Friends of the Earth 2015)
[2]  EIP-Agri Focus on group on short food chains (Kneafsey, 2014) – see
[3]  (Renting et al. 2003; Vandecandelaere et al, 2010; European Coordination Via Campesina, 2011; Kneafsey, 2013; 2014; Friends of the Earth 2015)
[4] (Ilbery and Kneafsey, 1998; Grimm, 2009; Marsden 2010; Renting et al. 2012)
[5]  (Hazell et al. 2010; Vandecandelaere et al. 2010; Arias et al., 2013; FAO, 2014)
[6]  (Kneasley, 2014)
[7]  (HLPE, 2013; FAO 2014)
[8]  (Poulton et al. 2010, Vandecandelaere et al. 2010;  Kneasley 2014)
[9]  (Serafin, 2004; Blisset, 2009: Alison et al. 2014)

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