The South of England Agricultural Society’s autumn conference was well attended by well over 200 farmers, land owners, students and other interested parties.
The excellent chairman for the evening was well known food journalist Sheila Dillon.
Peter Kendall, NFU President was the first to attempt to answer the question; ‘Who can afford food produced in Britain?’
Peter said he believes farmers should compete in a free market and should not need to rely upon financial support and subsidies. Food should and could be produced at a range of prices to enable everyone to buy British.
With more and more urbanisation including roads and additional cars the requirement for British farmers to make efficient use of their land and increase production, thus ensuring food security, was increasingly essential.
Mr Kendall also noted the increasing interest in China and other emerging overseas markets wishing to buy food produced in Britain.
Stephen Carr, who farms in East Sussex and is an agricultural journalist, has a reputation for disagreeing with Peter Kendall.
Never missing an opportunity to air their well-known but good natured differing views, Stephen forcefully made the case for farmers being supported for producing affordable food, rather than for owning land which is now subject to environmental regulations to qualify.
He made the point that since the introduction of the current SFP (Single Farm Payment) the incentive for farmers to produce food as opposed to being ‘park keepers’ has made certain sectors of farming such as beef, lamb and some milk production unsustainable.
An opinion not shared by Peter Kendall who reminded the audience that when farmers where paid for production, including the number of cattle and sheep per farm, and on the acres of grain grown, the results were grain and butter mountains, and the over production of milk.
Mr Carr believes the SFP has encouraged the rise in land prices and rents, while income has declined. Peter Kendall acknowledged that suckler beef production without subsidy was difficult to sustain, but he rejected the reintroduction of production support, saying it would make farmers less competitive.
The room came alive and everyone sat up when Nick Hempleman the farm shop retailer from the Sussex Produce Company, Steyning, took to the stage. He said some people obviously can’t afford British food but most can. He made the point that if customers were taught home economics and how to cook ‘proper’ food, their weekly budget could be reduced.
He believes we produce the best food in the world and the public wish to buy British. But he insisted that supermarkets must stop driving the market, it is up to the public to demand the retail industry sell them what they want to buy. The consumer should be driving the market.
He believes that the public want to see British farmers being paid a fair price for their produce which will enable them to prosper and invest in their businesses. He would like to see British Fair Trade introduced.
Nick made the point that only four retailers controlled 75 per cent of the grocery market, and that red tape and regulations were making it impossible for small businesses and farm shops to compete in the market. The public want to buy local and they want to buy fresh, they do not want their local farm shop to resemble Marks & Spencer, nor should they.
The British apparently buy the most cook books in the world but actually cook the least. There are more pawn brokers than fish shops on our high streets. Out of all European countries the British eat more processed food and have the greatest problem with obesity; interesting but quite frankly shocking statistics.
Did the speakers enlighten the audience about the affordability of British food and the reasons for the speculation? They each attempted but other than Nick Hempleman the others tended to veer away from the subject. The conclusion that some of us went away with were; our children and the public in general need to be better educated about food, learn to cook and the importance of a healthy diet.
Purchasing power should drive the food industry not the big four retailers. The public should learn that they have the capability to demand change.
Some British farmers will continue to struggle if they are to compete on the global market, as many overseas farmers continue to receive financial incentives to produce food rather than for owning land.
It is vital to respond to an ever increasing world population, and farmers must produce affordable food for the home market. But they can only do so if they are receiving sustainable financial rewards for their hard work and efforts.
And the inevitably disagreements between Kendal and Carr will rumble on!
Since writing some weeks ago about the Young Farmers Organisation I have had several requests for the contact details of the Hurstpierpoint YF Club. For information and joining details please contact: Vinnie Copper 07795362506/Vinnie.firstname.lastname@example.org
Carola Godman Irvine