Is farming at a crossroads? Andrew Livingston looks at the unfair struggle between agriculture and supermarkets
When I first started my column with the BV I presumed it was going to be me regaling funny stories from a life lived in agriculture. More and more I seem to be dusting off my milk crate instead, hopping up on it to shout about the many injustices that farmers face today.
Strap in. I’m about to go off on one … again.
News broke recently that The Dorset Dairy Co in Stalbridge was to sell its herd of milking cows. A dairy business without its cows – purely because the cost of producing the milk now outweighs the price they are paid for it.
Sadly, it’s not a rare story – it is symbolic of modern farming. Many egg producers have empty sheds, no longer housing birds … thanks to the same fear of losing money each time.
Last year saw a spike in the milk price as the cost of all commodities rose after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. But the price farmers have been paid for milk has rapidly dropped again, while costs obviously have not.
Of course, dairy farmers not being paid enough isn’t a new phenomenon. It seems every few years this row breaks out, farmers mobilise their tractors and block supermarket distribution centres.
And no, the supermarkets can’t be blamed for the cost of electricity. And no, it isn’t the supermarkets’ fault that the cost of animal feed went through the roof. The issue I have with supermarkets is that when things get tight for producers and consumers, the supermarkets are always the winners.
Profits or profiteering?
As the pandemic struck, the big three supermarkets – who had all been struggling in previous years thanks to the rapid growth of Aldi and Lidl – all recorded massive profits. Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Asda in 2021/2022 made a profit of £3.2 billion – double the £1.6 billion they made in 2019.
This year, amid a cost-of-living crisis, with food inflation at 19.1 per cent, Sainsbury’s has announced a further three per cent increase in profits. Tesco has announced a very slight dip of two per cent.
The most sickening news, however, is that Tesco and Sainsbury’s together are paying out a whopping £1.2 billion to their shareholders this year. Yet British farmers are expected to feed the country at a loss?
Call me crazy, but Marxism is starting to sound a bit more appealing!
Something has to change. The government must begin to control the strength and power the supermarkets have over the food chain.
A temporary solution
In a statement, The Dorset Dairy Co announced that they are instead going to concentrate on their cultured dairy products (Dorset strained yoghurt, kefir and cultured butter).
This diversification to create more artisan foods with their produce is the obvious answer for most small family-run farms.
However, it’s not a golden bullet – it has its own issues. Firstly, it takes an investment of cash to purchase the required equipment for diversification – cash that a small family-run farm may well not have.
Secondly, there can only be so many small Dorset cheese producers before it’s no longer niche and artisan. The gap in the market closes, competition rises … and farms begin to sell their produce cheaper and cheaper.
I look forward to seeing The Dorset Dairy Co’s yoghurt and butter on the shelves – just please not on a supermarket’s.
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