Last year, The Prince’s Countryside Fund (PCF) issued a report claiming of the family owned farms remaining in 2000, 50% have now gone out of business.
That statistic highlights a seismic shift in how our land is being farmed and one that should concern us all. Family farmers are an exceptionally economically resilient community, working to the principle: ‘Live as though you’ll die tomorrow, but farm as though you’ll live forever.’
So why are so many leaving the industry despite the £3 billion of subsidy shared across the industry; low interest rates; and increasing levels of diversification and cash calls from high land values?
Why are we seeing the demise of independent and sustainable mixed farms when the public cherish them?
There of course is no single one answer. But the ransacking of the word ‘farm’ and all it stands for in the public perception by food processors, retailers and even schemes purporting to support farmers has a lot to do with it.
The processors and retailers have, for a long term, profited from the value of the word ‘farm’ and the comfortable picture it conveys in the consumer’s mind, connecting them to everyone’s childhood caricature of farming, perhaps to a summer holiday in Devon, or a distant uncle’s small holding in Wales.
Old MacDonald never owned a farm. A farm can be 5 acres and it can be 5000 acres. It might rear 1,000 chickens extensively, or 200,000 in a battery unit. But the consumer has no idea beyond the pastiche of the brand.
There is a whole industry sitting between the farm and the plate that with its one hand paints the fictional fairytale the consumer want to hear to exact itself some premium, while its other hand presses hard for cheapest farm outputs, deaf to farming creed, location or sustainability.
The soft and alluring watercolour these multinationals paint provide a lie that in itself is unsustainable. It belittles and calls short an incredibly diverse industry, skillfully evading the truth and transparency the consumer increasingly demands.
The UK’s largest food assurance scheme is Red Tractor, applied to food sales with an annual value of some £13 billion. Farmers, rolled out for the Red Tractor marketing campaigns, are a valuable face for these commercial combines. There is considerable goodwill towards Red Tractor but now rather less from the farming community.
Red Tractor’s marketing is acutely suggestive: that by buying Red Tractor you are buying food sourced from independent British farms and providing valuable support for our farmers and a sustainable countryside. The consumer may be surprised to learn this is generally not the case.
You buy a Red Tractor chicken in a supermarket. There is a very high chance it will have come from Two Sisters that rears, grows, slaughters and processes 6 million chickens a week following a series of acquisitions. It employs 18,000 staff and has annual sales of over £2.3 billion. Hardly a farm?
The majority of label tags are applied to products derived from corporate combines
(as in the case of most Red Tractor poultry and pork), in some cases foreign owned (if that matters), who have a critical say in how Red Tractor is defined and applied.
Red Tractor does not provide farmers any premium. By not providing any weight to local sourcing and supply, nor food miles and footprint, nor even revealing the farm it is from, many now believe Red Tractor fails to support sustainable farming practices or sustainable markets. It is hard not to agree with them.
It is a difficult alliance between processors, retailers and farmers, with some competing objectives. It is hard not to believe that the organisation’s real control is with the retailer and processors, with farmers providing little more influence than lip service.
Jim Moseley, who was Chairman of Red Tractor and is now Chief Executive, is former managing director at General Mills UK and spent 12 years at Tulip (of Danish bacon fame) as sales and marketing director. As Chairman, he superseded David Gregory who was Chairman for over 6 years and was also non executive Director of Boparan Holdings Ltd, the holding company of 2 Sisters Food Group (the UK’s largest chicken processor) and a non executive Director of British Retail Consortium Trading Ltd. The former Chief Executive, David Clarke, was 20 years at the Forte Group plc when it was the UK’s largest hotel and food service chain. The guarantors of Red Tractor include the British Retail Consortium and the Food and Drink Federation.
Is it becoming a well marketed smokescreen for the quiet dismantling of a sustainable and environmentally friendly independent British farming infrastructure by the largest producers, retailers and processors?
That aside, there are questions being made of Red Tractor in terms of it being a credible label endorsement by those who have been or are involved in its steer. Sainsbury’s’ departing group chief executive Justin King, when asked by a farmer why the retailer did not insist on the Red Tractor symbol on British products (they dropped it in 2012) , said as his parting shot at an NFU conference:
“Why would Sainsbury’s wish to lend credibility to a label that frankly anybody can stick on the front of their packaging? These kind of industry wide initiatives are the refuge of scoundrels – people wrapping themselves in the clothes but not covering the hard yards. Red tractor does not tell the customer anything special about the product or differentiate it and that’s why we don’t use the label. It doesn’t add any value.”
I believe the consumer will only support Red Tractor for as long as they believe they are supporting higher welfare standards and a diverse British farming industry which
manages our countryside well and has intrinsic value to the survival of rural economies. The conflict at the heart of its remit makes this perhaps impossible.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of Red Tractor, its impact at consumer level is diminishing. In the meantime, the incredible reservoir of public goodwill towards farmers continues to be tapped by those outside the industry and now runs low. You see more and more scare stories on all types of farming. Each one lowers the reservoir. Indeed, in ten years' time, the consumer might have abbreviated 'factory farming' to simply 'farming'.
Happerley is not an assurance scheme and is not – and will never be - an alternative to Red Tractor. It is instead a neutral platform to enable transparent traceability through the food chain to empower the consumer to make fact based buying choices.
My argument has always been that until the food supply chains are published and food is passported, the primary producer and consumer (and many honest intermediate business between) will be cheated of premium and choice by smokescreens. I would argue that the consumer should be able to trace the back story of a £4.99 chicken just as much as prime fillet steak.
Let me give you an example. If you buy Red Tractor pork or bacon at Waitrose you are technically buying British farmed pork. But might the consumer who believes they are supporting a future for independent Briitish farmers be dismayed to learn these products are acquired from BQP, an industrial farming giant owned by Danish Crowne via a company owned by its Tulip subsidiary, Dalehead Foods. Dalehead is an integrated farming, slaughtering and processing company. BQP owns over 40,000 sows which produce in the region of 15,000 piglets a week. Their farms are split into separate breeding and finishing units with breeding farms averaging 800-1,000 sows. BQP also has its own in-house vet practice, recording systems, field staff and trials facility. All herds are repopulated by dedicated multiplication farms. They use about 300,000 tonnes of animal feed every year, sourced from one dedicated mill. All feed is supplied by a Danish company, ForFarmers. This is a European market leader in the animal feed sector, with an annual turnover of more than £2.1bn.
Hardly a family farm, as the promotions and Tractor assurance might suggest? Yes, farmed on British soil by British labour, but so is a Starbuck's coffee. The differentials in production and support to rural economies are purposefully blurred, methinks!
There are encouraging signs - very encouraging signs - of a reversal in fortune for independent farms. As always, the consumer leads the change. Today’s millenials are championing conscious consumption. They are born in an age in which they not only demand transparency and honesty, but expect it. They are more interested in food and its production than previous generations and most are prepared to pay a premium for provenance.
This has led to an explosive growth in artisan food producers operating locally across the UK, working closely with local farmers. Like farmers, they seek a fair and reasonable provenance premium and it makes sense they work closely together.
‘Less is becoming more’ and if this trend weakens the fat brush strokes used to market food as a commodity to a genuine interest in how it was produced, then the future is laden with opportunity.
The Brexit vote caused a dilemma for farmers. Although a patriotic breed and long time moaners of EC red tape and paperwork, you could almost sense the moment their fear caught up with their hearts and swayed arguably the majority to Remain. It is understandable. The Government may have called a stay of execution on farm subsidies until 2020, but then it will difficult to justify to the taxpayer the £3 billion of subsidies. These subsidies provide a lifeline for many farms. It has been predicted some 90% of farmers would go out of businesses if subsidies were stopped tomorrow.
I urge you to pause for a moment. The primary food industry of one of the wealthiest countries in the world, with a 70 million population on its doorstep, cannot survive without billions of subsidy? Something is very wrong.
Let me tell you what is wrong. The core of the UK’s agricultural industry has been reduced to delivering commodity outputs into a global market capturing no premium for provenance. In an industry where brand recognition, trust and loyalty are essential to help cushion market fluctuations, mainstream farmers and growers have no brand. Indeed, in most cases the consumer has no idea who actually reared or grew their food, relying instead – and paying premium to – brands further up the food chain.
But I believe there is another way….
The UK is leading the world in animal welfare. The British countryside is loved the world over. The tapestry of fields, villages, its sheer seasonal and topographical diversity and its rich human history is truly unique. With Brexit, UK farmers have the opportunity to step outside this globalized food industry.
This is only possible by empowering the consumer to make informed choices based on fact not fiction, and defeating food fraud and ambiguous labelling. We need to connect up the parts and involve the consumer. Currently, the intermediaries and retailers provide the provenance, not the food producer. The truth now needs to start at the farm.
Equally, a new generation of farmer is understanding that their future depends on wresting back control of provenance. They need to stand and be counted. Happerley wants every farmer to have a digital footprint.
There is a need for the efficiencies of corporate and vertically integrated food production systems to serve an ever growing population. However, there is also a wish and a want from the public for a diverse and sustainable rural landscape and economy, not least to provide them choice for the plate. Couple that with an ever growing pressure for transparency through the food chain, and we have real opportunity. To adjust that old adage - 'follow the money', it is now time to 'follow the consumer.'
Author: Matthew Rymer
Please note: These opinions are those of the author and do not necessairly represent those of Happerley.