Thursday, August 13, 2009

Letter published in The Times, Aug 13 2009

Dear Sir

Sean Rickard's assertion in Food News (p 17, Tues Aug 11) "We know that larger-scale, high-capitalised farms are far more productive and efficient than small-scale family farms" needs clarification. Some smaller farms are kept as a hobby, where output and efficiency are not goals, others farm within their means, with minimal borrowings. Smaller farms that are managed efficiently have no difficulty in matching their larger neighbours in terms of output or costs per acre, and can do so with lower impact on the environment and neighbourhood. The challenge is to help small family farms embrace low-cost technology which will edge up output and performance, not, I suggest, help large farms become even bigger.

Your faithfully

Mike Donovan

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Will the Grocery Ombudsman help lift farm product prices?

Will the new Grocery Ombudsman help farmers?

Call me a pessimist, but I doubt it. The more law the more entrenched the protagonists. Supermarket buyers will make sure their new contracts are worded so they can operate as normal. Will the Ombudsman be busy? I doubt it. How many farmers and small processors will use the service and subsequently risk a future contract?

The commitment is for low inflation and low supermarket prices, and however achieved, these help keep the nation happy. Few people understand the problems of the industry - they have enough difficulties in their own sectors to be concerned about others.

Creating a Grocery Ombudsman tells farmers that the government is concerned, answers the NFU by showing that something is being done to directly address the issue of supermarket power and dominance. The Ombudsman is not there to look at farming viability, or indeed the comparative strengths and weaknesses of players in the food chain.

There are other actions that could improve the terms of trade for farmers. Gwyn Jones, NFU Dairy Director has been working on milk contracts, devising an agreement fair to both sides. The widespread adoption of fair contracts which have at least in part be written by the producer and not simply provided by the buyer, be it in milk, strawberries or fresh beef or lamb, would go a long way to help. If buyers realised they had to go along with such contracts to be certain of supply, and that these contracts were by and large fair to both parties, change could take place.

Public pressure can still be effective. Farmers need to be continually devising ways of letting consumers of their products know they are being supplied at or below cost. The countryside got together over hunting. Maybe the same organisations, which all make good use of farming land for their sport, should be asked to help the farmers, who after all give them the land on which to gallop, the coverts for their non-quarry, and feed for their steeds!

The Grocery Ombudsman is about politics, not livelihood. Once established, consumers will be able to justify in their mind the low prices they see on supermarket shelves - be happy with the two-for-one promotions which are often funded by the suppliers, not the generous retailers, as are so many of the special offers etc, as well as any costs associated with in-store product promotion. Will the Ombudsman be able to change these practices? It's doubtful, but buyers are going to need to be careful to include for them in the supply contracts. The real issue is that they shouldn't be there in the first place.

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