Special Report: The future of British farming is under threat

15 November 2023, 07:00 AM
  • As a campaign is launched calling for fairer farming, those shops that grow their own, and contribute to the circular economy, have the opportunity to show what they’re made of
Special Report: The future of British farming is under threat

There was outcry in February when consumers found supermarkets stripped of their favourite salad items. Tomatoes, lettuce, cucumbers and more disappeared from veg aisles.

The situation only further highlighted the importance of having shorter, localised, and more agile supply chains. But, say farmers and lobbyists, it appears lessons haven’t been learned.

In a campaign, Get Fair About Farming (created by Riverford), an open letter has been drawn up for the ‘Big Six’ supermarkets, and a petition drafted for government, demanding more support, and fairer prices for growers.

The move comes as Riverford’s research revealed more than half of fruit and vegetable farmers fear they will go out of business in the next 12 months, largely due to supermarket buying behaviours, such as not paying on time, and cancelling or changing orders at the last minute.

Around one in five farmers surveyed had suffered a waste crop due to a cancelled order, and 29% said they’d had an order cancelled with no explanation.

These devastating losses come at a time when farms are also being crippled by crop failures due to extreme weather conditions.

One potato farmer, who wished to remain anonymous, said, “I’ve not grown for the major supermarkets for five years, and I would never go back. It cost me £25,000 to grow the crop –they just said ‘we don’t want them now’ - that was it, 60 metric tonnes of potatoes wasted. We need a fairer, shorter and more transparent food chain.”

Get Fair on Farming’s open letter, signed by organisations such as The Soil Association and Sustain, calls for supermarkets to pay what they agreed, buy what they committed to buy, agree on fair product specifications, to commit for longer terms, and to pay on time.

Riverford’s Guy Singh-Watson said, “British agriculture is on its knees, and that’s why most small family farms think that they’re not going to be in business the next generation. Is that what we want from our countryside? Is that what we want from our food system? Is that what we want from farmers?

“Given the information, all polls show the British public wants better, and would even pay a little more if they knew it went to support better farming.”

Pete Russell, founder of Ooooby, agrees with Guy, saying he feels the dominant players in the food industry are completely detached from the reality of farmers…but that there’s the opportunity for a new wave of British farms to come through, producing on a smaller scale for the increasing number of consumers who want to eat better.

“We’re seeing an accelerating trend of farms bypassing the supermarkets and selling direct to local households,” Pete explained. “There are a growing number of small farms earning good money by selling direct. Interestingly, this crisis moment for farmers is shaping up to be the catalyst that’s needed to drive the transition toward decentralising the food system.”

Pete says online shopping is “levelling the playing field” and that the poor treatment of farmers by supermarkets will “only speed up the growth of the gate-to-plate marketplace”.

“The companion phenomenon is the increase of bright young people moving from urban centres to the countryside to start small farms. This seems to be influenced by a concern around food security and a desire to get back-to-basics in today’s economic, ecological, and geographical volatility.”

Farm shop, restaurant and dairy farm owner Rebecca Mayhew, of Old Hall Farm, says now is the time for British farmers and farm shops to expand at a local level, demonstrating they can be a reliable port of call for fresh, seasonal ingredients all year round.

“Fruit and vegetable farmers are having a gruelling time at the moment. This situation has really highlighted that if British suppliers can be undercut by non-British suppliers, that’s what the supermarkets will do. Margins are tight on food. That’s why retailers scrimp on every single penny. They’re not protecting the supply chain!”

Rebecca fears another global event, such as a pandemic, will leave UK shoppers short due to the current set up of the larger food supply networks. “We won’t have reserves to fall back on,” she warned. “We’re almost completely reliant on trade when there’s good food rotting in our fields. In lockdown, when there were egg shortages, we had a good supply because a farm near to us had their eggs rejected by a supermarket for being too big.” This, said Rebecca, is the value of a farm shop. They can be reactive and flexible, and aren’t worried over carrots being straight, or eggs being the right shape or size.

Farm shops, Rebecca added, can only get stronger. “We can plant enough vegetables to really look after our customers. We should be growing and eating more seasonal food, not relying on getting lettuces at any time of year.”

Rebecca adds more land needs to be given over to food production, rather than to produce biofuel, which she feels is too heavily subsidised by government. “The government needs to incentivise those of us growing food and feeding the local economy. Perhaps they should subsidise farm shops, or encourage the building of more farm shops, or local mills so we can have more local flour? More farm shops would be better for everyone. When things go wrong, long supply chains break. We urgently need to shorten them, to get food to people when they need it.”

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