This year I couldn’t make both days, so I just went along on the Thursday last week to the Oxford Real Farming Conference at the Town Hall. As always it’s a hard job trying to choose between attending some sessions that are on at the same time, but I plumped for those that seemed to have some practical elements as well as offering a wider perspective on food and farming policy.
Building Resilience: Addressing Challenges in the Food & Farming System
Chair: Helen Browning (Soil Association)
Speakers: Christopher Price (CLA), Tim Benton (Leeds University & Chatham House), Graeme Willis (CPRE)
I thought I’d kick off the day with an overview and look at what ‘resilience’ means, a word that is being used as the new buzz word, like ‘sustainable’ was a few years ago, but which can have various different meanings. Tim Benton defined it as how well a system can recover from difficulties; and also pointed out that we need to work out whether we want to come back to the same point after a crisis or shock, or to change the way of doing things – for example, coping with the Dustbowl situation in the USA in the 1800s led to a change of farming system. He also looked at sharing risk, so that for example farmers with contracts with supermarkets can have a vertical risk share, where risks (eg climate change impacts, pests and disease, crop failures etc) are spread throughout the production chain, and don’t only rest with the farmer; and how crop insurance is also seriously being looked at to spread risk, rather than subsidies per se. Lastly he pointed out that managing risks comes at a cost, which up until now has mostly been borne by the farmers; but in an ever-risky world (as well as climate change, the uncertainties caused by a globalised future with potential shock from Brexit and an unpredictable Trump presidency), and with fewer and fewer producers as more farmers leave the industry and fewer join, those risk costs will need to be spread.
Christopher Price advocated that farmers continue to do their own risk-management as much as possible to ensure their resilience, eg not relying on subsidies which may or may not continue, saving money in ISAs when a good year, taking advantage of tax strategies such as averaging available to farmers where tax bills are more evenly spread no matter whether a good year or bad, and also touched on the idea of bringing in a USA-style insurance system rather than subsidy, or that subsidy money being used to help farmers become more resilient via consultancy etc. I later asked the question whether he’d agree with the idea that this Governmental support should be available to all producers, rather than larger scale producers on 12 acres or more as is the case now for subsidy money, and he agreed that subsidies should be changed, and support should be available to any good business with a viable plan.
Real Food From Real Farmers
Chair: Jamie Pike
Speakers: Dagan James (Boughton Water Buffalo), Jonathan Chapman (holistic grazing farm), Organic Lea representative
Dagan James highlighted the importance of direct marketing, and getting people on to your farm to get them to really understand what you do, using your production as narrative, and how it’s different from other less sustainable farms. He advocated making relationships with chefs and businesses who are a member of the Sustainable Restaurant Association, who really get the difference in provenance and flavour of food. Dagan also points out that you need a new skill set for direct marketing: as well as the actual farming and producing, you need to be customer-focussed and retail-minded. He and Jonathan both emphasised that (perhaps contrary to what some producers might think) direct marketing means that you can only sell premium products, and that you can’t get away with trying to palm off substandard food, as it directly damages your reputation. A last-minute speaker replacement, Hannah (I think that was her name!) from Organic Lea specialises in salads for restaurants, and the business turns over £45,000 from 1.5 acres of intensive salad production (they also grow and sell other veg such as tomatoes, celeriac etc, but salad is the speciality for restaurants). She highlighted the importance of consistent quality and supply, and being able to adapt quickly to demand. During questions, the issue arose of restaurants claiming to stock ‘local’ produce and support small producers, in order to increase their customer base, while not sticking to their purported ethics. Several options came out, not least calling out the restaurants about it (even if you don’t supply them), asking where they get their produce from, and either inviting bare-faced lies, or pointing out that their labelling is misleading; plus Riverford’s Guy Watson from the audience suggested that as consumers it’s always our duty to find out exactly where ‘local’ means and who the suppliers are. The FSA could also be brought in as a last resort if the labels are illegally misleading, eg stating produce is organic when not.
Hear From Fellow Farmers: Tech & Tools for a Resilient Farm
Chair: Abby Rose (Farmarama Radio)
Speakers: Louise MacDonald (New MacDonald Farm), Nick Green (Incredible Farm), Will Davenport (Davenport Vineyards), Stephen Briggs (Abacus Agriculture Consultants)
The overall sense in this sessions was ‘new-fashioned farming’: using innovation and tools while listening to the land to get good results. Nick Green showed us his micro-milking battery-powered device he bought online from the USA, for his one cow; Louise (nice to see a local neighbour from New MacDonald Farm appearing!) highlighted the benefits of signing up as a producer to a Food Assembly (and the Open Food Network was later mentioned too); Will Davenport explained how phone apps have helped him keep track and great records around his vineyard (with codes on each plant that can be recognised by his phone, and all the necessary info about it downloaded to his hand); and Stephen Briggs suggested some useful websites, apps and other sources of info. He uses the free Rain Alarm app daily; as well as the various BASF weed and disease ID apps. He also recommends podcasts for info and learning as well as entertainment, such as Farmerama, Radio 4’s Farming Today, TED talks, ITeachAg and Twitter. Other suggestions from the floor also included WAVE accounting software.
Humphrey offered a background and overview on the politics of pricing food, noting that there was a food shortage in the 1800s which led to people hijacking grain carts – but rather than taknig the food home from themselves or thir communities, the hijackers would set up market stalls and sell the grain for what they considered to be a fair price. Food pricing has therefore been a political issue ever since, especially following the Corn Laws designed to protect wealthy landowners and producers, and their eventual repeal; 200 years ago poorer people were spending 60-80% of their income on bread alone, with perhaps 5% on meat or dairy. While it is definitely progress that people in general can afford to spend more on food and also on other things such as houses, it’s not just increased incomes which has led this, but the continued reduction in food prices, so that the proportion of income spent on food is now more like 9-12% in total. The question is whether this is the true cots of that food, and whether people are paying for cheap food production in other ways (taxes/subsidies, water bills, health and environmental problems and so on).
George Dunn has a background in economics, and gave a comprehensive dismissal of the illusion of a free market when it comes to food pricing. According to the father of economics Adam Smith, a free market must comprise of: buyers who individually don’t have the power to influence prices (not the case with supermarkets’ and other big corporations’ powers); have homegenous production ie the same product (definitely not the case with food, look at the trouble we have trying to explain how industrial agriculture differs from smaller scale sustainable production, or processed food from fresh ingredients, or country of origin and working conditions of food production workers); producers must have free entry to and exit from the market place (how many new entrants do we know struggling to get customers, especially in public procurement or supermarket stockists, and how easy is it for suppliers to leave?); and consumers must have ‘perfect knowledge’ of the marketplace in order to make rational decisions (very clearly not the case, as consumers are surprised when they realise what tiny margins producers earn compared to retailers, or are misled over ‘local’ food claims, or fall for disingenuous marketing strategies such as the Rosedean Farm labels, or scandals such as horsemeat-gate come along). Therefore there isn’t a ‘free market’ when it comes to food; which begs the question whether it needs some State or top-down tinkering, a radical change (from the bottom-up perhaps?), or some other structural solution.
The panel also discussed how cheap food has become an ideological issue in our age; fitting in with the prevailing idea that more stuff will solve things. We are beginning to realise that with the stuff comes other problems however: more waste, more health problems, environmental problems, and sometimes less nutrition as empty calories are consumed and used to fill us up rather than feed us properly. Cheap food also keeps the status quo (an echo of Marx’s ‘bread and circuses’ for the proletariat claim), and that it actually causes hunger: food poverty is not a problem of production (or food prices would be sky-high in a free market supply-and-demand economy), but of distribution.
Lynne Davis (see pic) also made the practical point that as food sellers, we need to bear in mind the impression of cheapness versus the perception of expense: showing us two photos of a cosy rustic-looking farm shop, and a bright budget supermarket’s aisles. The price of the veg was actually the same, or lower at the farm shop; but she pointed out that businesses have spent a great deal of money making their shops and ranges look cheap, in order for consumers to feel they were getting a great bargain; whereas the lovely-looking rustic farm shop with its wooden barrels, chalkboards and earthy feel gave the impression of being exclusive and therefore pricey: perhaps fine for an indulgent treat, but not for everyday shopping (a similar story has happened to the word ‘organic’ over the years). Maybe until culturally we all start realising that market stalls, farm shops and direct sales are often the best value, as producers we should pick up a few tricks from the supermarkets, such as bargain bins, basic packaging and price comparision stickers?