THE COMPLEXITIES and limitations of buying local came to light during a robust discussion at the Lerwick mart on Thursday afternoon.
Around 30 crofters and farmers, butchers, wholesalers, politicians and representatives from the local authority attended following an invitation from Shetland Livestock Marketing Group (SLMG) and Shetland Abattoir Co-operative to discuss its resilience review.
This followed criticism of the public sector in Shetland over the last few days, which was accused of not buying enough local produce to support the islands' farming sector.
What transpired was that SLMG was not actively pursuing the sale of its produce because it couldn't afford a marketing person, while wholesalers didn't know where to source local meat.
Following a short presentation by farmer Ronnie Eunson in which he highlighted the relevance of agriculture to the islands' community, the SLMG chairman was challenged by Michael Grant of wholesalers Hughson Brothers who told him: "I didn't know I could buy meat from you."
Grant went on to say that as a wholesaler he needed consistency of supply of cheaper cuts – a lot of beef mince for the schools for example.
"I don't have a market for a whole coo," he told the meeting. "I would love to take from you [SLMG] what I need," he told Eunson, "but I have to know what you can put in. I cannot buy from you until then. Break down the carcass."
The meeting heard that local butchers were at capacity and that it was near impossible to recruit anybody new to the trade, and that only a few local crofters were willing, and capable, to market their produce themselves.
The council's head of development Neil Grant said the SIC was already buying £200,000 worth of meat from local suppliers (wholesalers) and fish for £100,000.
This was not necessarily from local producers but as a local authority the council had to comply with strict public procurement rules and couldn't stipulate that products had to be local, he said.
This was questioned by Eunson who said other Scottish local authorities had been more successful in procuring from the agriculture community in their areas.
Lerwick farmer Eric Graham said the issues facing SLMG were "much bigger" than just procurement by local agencies.
"We are not doing any marketing and I think we should," he said. "We have to bring people with us such as the hotels."
Praising the Scottish Government's work in promoting the Scottish food and drink industries, local MSP Tavish Scott said it was clear that Shetland needed its own food and drink strategy which should, among others, investigate how a boning plant could be provided.
Following the meeting Neil Grant said he was happy to investigate how the council could do more to buy from local producers, but he warned that the scope might be limited.
He said the SIC was spending around £1 million on supplying the kitchens of schools and care homes, with most contracts placed with local wholesalers, while local meats were only a small part of that.
"The conversation that went on here was helpful in that we were identifying some of the issues," he said.
"My view is that Shetland Islands Council procures locally, whether it can be produced locally and what needs to be put in place to allow it to be produced locally is what we discussed here today.
"There is definitely no lack of willingness to get these contracts procured more on a local level; if other achieving that then we are glad to hear about that."
Eunson said he was pleased that farmers and crofters have been able to rekindle the discussion about the importance of supporting the local agriculture sector.
"I feel that this has been a very useful opportunity to engage with the widest range of folk that we have been able to attract to a meeting ever, and it has been very important that folk came along, express their misgivings, their opinions, and their support.
"We have never been able to engage with the wider range of businesses in the same way before.
"I deliberately made sure that the invitee list was as wide as possible; there were some notable exceptions: NHS weren't here, the banks didn't come, the bulk of the councillors didn't turn up, so all in all the people that we did get expressed what they really felt about matters and I think that was very useful."
He added that he would like to see the younger generation coming into agriculture now to take up the task, as he would be stepping down as chairman of SLMG at its upcoming AGM.
Marian Armitage of Shetland Food and Drink Group, meanwhile, added: "We have plans to make Shetland food better known nationally, but we have to consolidate the home market first.
"We would like to be involved in all what has been discussed here today."