Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Farmers Are Revolting

Yes, you heard me. Farmers are revolting. But why aren’t consumers?

Because we like our food and drink as cheap as chips. (Ironically, there’s a danger chips will become a bit pricier thanks to the soggy summer ruining plenty of potato crops.)

Dairy farmers are making a fuss this week as the price paid to them by processors who in turn are being squeezed by supermarkets continues to fall.

Meanwhile ministers and council leaders are leaping into action (or at least, as Sir Humphrey Appleby would have put it, they are giving the impression of leaping into action) at the prospect of 1,700 job losses in West Lothian.

The Hall’s meat plant looks set to go down the tubes. The Dutch owners, Vion, say the plant is inefficient. There’s no shortage of demand for cheap meat but our shelves have been flooded with imports. In a Sainsbury’s “Local” the other day I saw a 300g pack of Danish bacon for £1.50 right next to a 220g pack of Scottish bacon for £3.05.

In these hard-pressed times (unless you’re a bank boss or a quango chief) is it any wonder people are opting to save a few quid?

I heartily recommend this report by the Centre for Socio-cultural Change which puts the pig meat industry’s decline into sharp perspective. Supermarkets are all powerful and governments have done nothing to arrest the decline. One startling observation in the report, if I read it right, is that per pig the average farmer breaks even, while a processor like Vion makes £50 and the likes of Tesco make £100. So, there’s plenty of money sloshing around like a big bucket of swill and it’s the greedy guts who are guzzling it.

It’s one of many consequences of leaving our food supply to the free market. At this point I worry I start to sound a bit Soviet Bloc but tractor production quotas aren’t what I intend to advocate.

Instead we need to re-localise our food chains. To some it might sound a bit hippy-ish but just look at the mess being created by an over-centralised, corporate culture. Farmers get the food we need on our plates so we should pay them a fair amount. One of the best ways to do that is to resist the holy grail of consolidation. Any time a farmer or food producer strikes a deal with a supermarket chain this is hailed as great news. Is it really?

By cutting out the middle men and reconnecting our farmers and producers with consumers we can ensure decent prices are paid, margins are kept to a minimum and that people understand the impact their buying choices have. By buying cheap stuff in a big supermarket you will benefit the supermarket bosses and shareholders and that is probably all.

Look at what happened in my old stamping ground of Nairn, once famed for its creamery. The old Claymore place was taken over by mega-dairy Graham’s who’ve now turned it into a distribution depot and shifted production to the central belt. You have the ludicrous situation where milk from cows in Nairnshire goes to the central belt only to be sent back to Nairn from where it is transported literally across the road from the depot to be sold in the Sainsbury’s supermarket that so many people demanded.

How resilient is this set up? Pretty flimsy if you ask me. Surely a more robust supply chain would be Nairnshire farmers supplying a Nairn dairy that supplies Nairn customers directly.

Luckily here in the Honest Toun we’re close to a couple of great dairy farms who supply local shops. I can pick up Bonaly Farm milk from the wee shop on our street and it’s the same price as the generic stuff at the Tesco on the edge of the town centre. At least I know it’s fresh, local and supporting jobs in my community.

I also like the look of these guys at Yester who do doorstep deliveries.

The Halls situation in West Lothian seems pretty focussed on saving the plant and as many jobs as possible. It is unlikely senior politicians will get the bit between their teeth and tackle the local versus consolidated issue any time soon. But it will be better for all of us if we encourage and reward local food production and supply chains.

Instead of a large, centralised (and by all accounts poorly designed) plant owned by a European mega-firm supplying a handful of huge, powerful retailers we could have a number of smaller processors selling direct to the consumer using local meat. That would be the best way to bring home the bacon in the long-term.

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