No Lamb Week

Farmers across Britain took to the streets over the weekend in protest at plunging farmgate prices and what they see as unfair competition from cheap imports and a lack of support from supermarkets.

Thankfully we didn’t see the angry scenes that have brought many parts of France to a standstill over the past few weeks. As far as we know here at Grocer HQ, there were no herds of pigs trampling through supermarkets, burning tyre barricades or farmers spraying manure over motorists and supermarket car parks.

Instead, UK farmers were a bit more reserved, with a wave of peaceful protests outside supermarkets, a few go-slows on the A50, a pledge to withdraw British lamb from sale for a week and a ‘supermarket sweep’-type trolley dash, where a group of farmers emptied the shelves of milk at a couple of supermarkets – and, ever the epitome of British politeness, paid for it all.

This restrained approach to protest appears to have paid off – and it seems that, for now, public opinion remains with the farmers.

But I would argue that producers need to have a careful think about the message they are sending out if they want to keep consumers on board in the long term.

Unlike the protests that formed the #SOSDairy campaign in 2012, this latest spate of direct action seems more disparate, with no one unifying message or group to stand behind.

In fact, some of the messages coming out from the farming sector appear – to the untrained eye of the public – to be completely contradictory. Dairy farmers are angry that supermarkets are slashing retail prices and “devaluing” their product, with many linking these cuts to low farmgate prices.

Meanwhile, lamb farmers actually want the supermarkets to drop their prices for UK lamb to stimulate demand and make their product more competitive against New Zealand imports.

Added to this, claims that staff were “overwhelmed” by the farmer sweep of milk at a Morrisons store in the Cornish town of Bude will raise fears over intimidation and bullying of working people and consumers, while the often extreme online views of some farmers – who would appear to prefer it if New Zealand lamb and other food imports simply didn’t exist – could damage the image of any campaign to win over hearts and minds.

Farmers are currently riding the crest of a wave of public sympathy over their plight, but it only needs a few misjudgements to turn public opinion against them.