Loch Leven’s larder bears the increasingly common challenge in the United Kingdom of managing against competing environmentally friendly forces. A produce farm that supplies potatoes, carrots and other vegetables both to small local customers and large retailers, the farm must balance the salient — and compelling — need for profit with perceived public pressure to keep pace with the prevailing flavor of social responsibility. Though daunting, it’s a task Rob Niven, owner of Loch Leven’s Larder, pursues zealously and with a smile.
Niven’s establishment is multifaceted. The vast majority of his revenue comes from supplying produce to several major food retailers, such as ASDA (Wal-Mart), Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Marks & Spencer (all names I remember from my days doing global consumer business strategy work for a major consulting firm). He sells some of his own produce on site, though this is mostly a way to draw guests to the property and ultiamtely into the cafe. Oh, so far, Loch Leven’s Larder has the best cup of coffee in Scotland. There’s no competition.
Anyway, the visit sparked a lively conversation on the different flavors of corporate social responsibility with which food growers/manufacturers must contend, particularly in the United Kingdom. Globally and in just about any local market in the world, widely accepted definitions of “green,” “organic,” “socially responsible” and “locally grown” do not exist. But, one can usually cobble together a notion of each that is probably ballpark accurate.
So, I asked Niven what his priority is. After all, one can’t simultaneously serve so many masters. He puts “food miles” first. Basically, this involves reducing the distance that a food product travels before reaching the point of sale. The goal is to lower carbon footprint (i.e., energy consumption) by relying less on trucks, rail or planes. Not only is this a laudable environmental objective, it is a prudent cost-mitigation tactic, particularly in a global market held hostage by oil manufacturers.
At the same time, Niven does minimize the use of chemicals, and one of his two 250-acre farms is organic. Yet, he has no plans to convert the other farm to this method, and his reasoning is sound. Organic farming, given global (and even local) demand, is not practical. The same area of land produces less organic crop than it would with reasonable and safe chemical support. Organic products thus become luxury items.
From an environmental/socially responsible standpoint, the most interesting feature of Loch Leden’s larder is a concept with which every New Yorker is quite familiar: location, location, location. The altitude and climate reduce the need for chemicals and diesel-powered irrigation, which allow Niven to address both organic and carbon footprint issues … get this … naturally.
Despite all the talk of social responsibility and environmental impact, however, Loch Leden’s Larder appears to be perfectly focused on the single issue that is make-or-break for every retailer, even if Niven doesn’t realize he is doing it. The retail experience is paramount, and it shows at his establishment. Loch Leden’s Larder has put together a comfortable, enjoyable shopping experience that makes even a groc-ophobe like me happy.
If you aren’t moving product — or as Niven says, “filling the till” — nothing else matters.