Get Fair About Farming-5

Can the power of supermarket buyers be bridled? Can we regulate our way to fairness in food supply chains? Or will the imbalance in market power see the farmers’ share of the UK food pound continue to fall, as it has throughout my working life, despite the rising cost of living, tightening environmental standards and the desire of the UK public to support family farms?

Fairness is subjective. It’s hard to define and even harder to regulate for. Profit, on the other hand, gains power from its objective simplicity. Without regulation, profit will win and always concentrate wealth in the hands of those who hold market power at the cost of those who don’t.

The proposed division of regulatory responsibility for supply chain fairness between Defra and the Department for Business & Trade – two departments with a poor record of mutual co-operation – will make a difficult task substantially harder and is unlikely to deliver the fairness called for by farmers and the public.

Instead, legislating against the dishonesty of supermarket “fake farm” brands and supporting the genuine identification of source and farm method could be a more effective way to empower farmers and address the underlying imbalance of power, which is the root cause of unfairness in our industry.

My dad entered our industry as a tenant dairy farmer in 1951, while food rationing was still in place and farmers were valued. He ended up selling a white commodity. Despite increasing his herd tenfold, driving down costs, breeding ever more productive cows, and compromising his soil, he made progressively less and less for his efforts, despite his ever-increasing efficiency.

Two years as a management consultant disabused me of the notion that working hard and being competent is enough to guarantee a decent living, as there is always someone somewhere in the world who will produce the same thing for less.

Returning to the farm in the 1980s, delivering my organic vegetables to local shops out of the back of my car, I did my best to get my name on them so I could communicate directly with my customers. With any space or attention I could grab, I sought to explain what made my veg better for their families and the planet, and why they should pay a little more or choose my vegetables when others were in surplus.

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Without realising it, I was starting to build the brand that would become Riverford. A brief foray into selling to supermarkets in the 1990s – when, for a short time, shortness of supply gave organic farmers the whip hand – quickly convinced me I had entered a cul-de-sac that would lead only to soul-sapping, slow and painful ruin. I realised that to be able to farm, employ well, and be in control of my destiny, I also needed to be in control of my relationship and communications with my end customer. Power and ultimately profit lie in being able to tell my farm’s story.

As the business grew from its Devon roots to deliver vegetable boxes across the UK, I inevitably started buying from other farmers both in the UK and Europe. We stopped supplying supermarkets in 2001, but my treatment by the buyers has stayed with me. On one occasion I was told: “Look, sonny, when we whistle you jump, the only question is how high.”

I was determined that Riverford would never behave in that way towards its own suppliers, and remain so. When the business became employee-owned in 2018, one of my parting gifts was our Fair to Farmers Supplier Charter, which lays out in considerable detail how Riverford will behave, what it expects of its suppliers, and how disputes will be settled.

In 30 years, I can count on one hand the number of suppliers who have left us. We are still buying from most of the farms we grew up with – they have become part of our story. I strongly believe in the mutual benefits and resilience of long-term, enjoyable trading relationships, built over many years, by being true to your word. It would be naive to deny the benefits competition can bring in driving efficiency and innovation, but one should also appreciate the marketing and investment efficiency that can come from co-operation and open communication.

Angry as I am at the supermarkets’ exploitation of the industry, my biggest frustration is with the inefficiency that results from such short-termism – a terrible waste of skills, investments and lives. The dishonesty of fake farms and myopic exploitation of market power in price negotiations may give UK citizens cheap food in the short term, but in the long term, it will destroy the UK farming industry that supermarkets depend on. It is hard to see that as good business.