Crippling costs, bad weather and disease have hit the countryside hard – and left the future of British food in jeopardy, say the farmers fighting for survival
A few hours before I arrived at Kit Dean’s dairy farm on the edge of the Yorkshire Dales National Park, near where North Yorkshire smudges into Cumbria, he took a call from his animal feed supplier. “I had to put them off again,” he says. The bill, running into thousands of pounds, will have to remain unpaid. “They’ve put a stop on the account,” says his wife, Jane, bluntly. “I don’t know how we’re going to afford to buy the feed we need through the winter.”
We are at the table in their handsome, flagstoned kitchen. There are mugs of tea and homemade flapjacks, and a heart-stopping view of the northern hills. The financial outlook, however, is anything but beautiful. The Deans have a milking herd of around 90 cows, and nearly 300 sheep for lambing on their 250-acre farm. Every part of their business is under pressure. At the heart of the challenges they face is what can, by turns, be both farmers’ friend and foe: the Great British weather. For 12 months it has been only a foe. It’s a narrative of rain and gloom and more rain. “You might get a bad summer,” Kit says. “But it wouldn’t coincide with a bad winter and spring. I’ve never seen it as bad as this.”
He lists his problems, starting with silage, the green fodder harvested from fields during the summer and stored as animal feed for the harsh winter months. “The first crop of silage was fine,” he says. “The second crop was very late and half what it should be. Plus I couldn’t graze the cows. They had to be in from July, it was that wet. And obviously you have to feed them properly because if you don’t feed them they don’t produce milk.”
So they had to turn to higher volumes of concentrates than usual, where costs have shot up too, because of grain price rises on the international markets. “Feed has gone up by £50 or £60 a tonne.” With each animal consuming a couple of tonnes of concentrate a year, that’s a major cost. “As a result, the milk price is still below the cost of production because of the cost of that feed.”
Meanwhile, lamb prices have collapsed, and there is the threat of disease in the flock, both Schmallenberg, which leads to birth defects, and the growth-inhibiting parasite liver fluke. Kit is a British farmer to the very soles of his muddy boots: solidly built, determined, proud. At first he asked not to be named in this article; admitted that he felt that in some way he might have failed. But he’s come to realise it’s not the case; that instead he is simply a victim of a brutal set of circumstances far beyond his control. “Consumers don’t realise how tough everything is,” he says.
British farming is in the midst of a very deep crisis. After a drought in its first months, 2012 went on to become England’s wettest year on record, and the second wettest in the UK as a whole. Early summer was a deluge. High summer was sunless, resulting in silage that was as much as 40% lower in all-important sugars. The rains came again for the heart of the growing season. “This crisis compares to both BSE and foot and mouth,” says the farmer and agriculture expert, Donald Curry, who chaired the government inquiry into food and farming after the foot-and-mouth outbreak in 2001, and who now sits in the Lords as a crossbench peer. “The weather has affected the entire country and some have had the double whammy of bovine TB and Schmallenberg in sheep.” There are also price pressures on both inputs – feed and fuel – and the amount retailers are prepared to pay. “We know it’s going to affect farmers for this year and next year. For the farming help charities this has become a very serious issue.”
Just before Christmas, responding to dire reports from charities, the Prince of Wales convened an emergency meeting at Clarence House. In 2010 he had founded the Prince’s Countryside Fund (PCF), to support people working in agriculture, using money gathered from corporate donors. “One of the reasons the prince wanted to establish the charity was to create an emergency fund,” says Tor Harris, director of the PCF. At that meeting the entire £150,000 emergency fund was earmarked for distribution to farmers in crisis. It was matched by another £150,000 from the Duke of Westminster, one of Britain’s biggest landowners. Donations from corporate partners, including Waitrose, Asda, HSBC and even McDonald’s, brought the emergency fund to around half a million pounds, which is being distributed by four charities.
The Royal Agricultural Benevolent Institution (RABI), founded 150 years ago, is one of them. It used to be a standard chronic welfare charity providing help to the elderly and disabled with connections to agriculture. Now a lot of its work involves people in acute distress. “In the past year we’ve seen a dramatic rise in calls to our helpline and those are coming from working farmers,” says Philippa Spackman of RABI. It is, she says, the small family farms and, in particular, the tenant farmers who are being hit hardest. “The narrative is never just one thing. It’s two or three coming together, a perfect storm of need. And the situations can be drastic. Our welfare officer in Cornwall was even handing out sandwiches from her car to people who had nothing to feed themselves. We are talking about farmers being pushed on to the breadline.”
What’s more, with changes to state benefits being introduced in April, they expect to see even more hardship. “These are people who might have a freezer full of beef, but not enough money for washing powder. We’re paying for school uniforms, basics like that.” The issue now is just how long the situation will continue for. Spackman says: “We are concerned that if the number of calls continues to rise at the same rate we simply won’t be able to meet demand.” The PCF acknowledges the problem. “It’s why we’re calling on the public to help get the emergency fund to £1m,” Harris says.
Kit and Jane were one of the farming couples who turned to RABI for help and were grateful for the welfare grant and support, though it’s clear they hated having to ask for it. I ask Kit if he ever thinks of finding something else to do. After all, while he’s worked on farms all his life, he’s not part of a multi-generation farming family. “What else would I do?” he says. “When it’s all you’ve ever known, where else do you go?”
A journey across the landscape of British agriculture can be a dispiriting business right now. On the eastern side of North Yorkshire at Northallerton I meet 67-year-old Edward Dennison, a fourth-generation farmer who is currently passing on the 830 acres he farms to his sons. “Until yesterday we were dairy, sheep and arable,” he says, when we sit down for coffee. “Now we’re just sheep and arable.” The day before he had sold most of his cows. After a century in dairy farming the family is getting out of that side of the business.
“Dairy hasn’t been that clever for 10 or 15 years, but now…” his voice trails off. “What’s crippled us is the input costs, the feed. We got enough silage by volume but it’s not a good enough quality so the cows are not milking.”
We go out for a walk to have a look at the cow sheds, where what remains of the herd is still housed prior to going off to new owners. “I’ve never experienced bad weather like we have had, not in 60 years,” Dennison says. We stop and look out at the fields in front of the farmhouse. “That’s meant to be a field of winter wheat,” he says. “It’s meant to be green.” There is a sludgy expanse of brown in front of us. “There are three fields we haven’t even attempted to drill. I’m sick of looking at my waterlogged fields.” British wheat harvests are down nearly 15% and much of it is of very poor quality. In 2011, 90% of the harvest was of a high enough grade – rich in protein and gluten – to be milled for flour. In 2012 only 10% was. Millers had to import the rest.
Edward says part of the reason the cows are going is because neither of his sons likes that aspect of the business. “Though if it made economic sense for us to stay in dairy it might be different. It’s a global market now and we are a high cost country. Only 6% of dairy production is actually traded on the world markets but that defines the global price.”
Dennison and his family are managing to keep their heads above water. But he knows through his work as a volunteer for the Farm Crisis Network that the mood in the industry is very bleak. He has been there at the end of the phone, offering advice to other farmers who are not managing quite so well. “One farmer I know had to sell his herd simply because he couldn’t afford the feed.” And then he says: “Farming can be very lonely. You’re more often than not working by yourself, battling the weather. You’re constantly trying to play catch-up. To appreciate the loneliness and isolation is very difficult.”
The usual reply to these stories of woe is that farmers should diversify, become entrepreneurs, but that isn’t always the solution either. Over in Cumbria, Caroline Watson has done everything she can and is still failing to make ends meet. She and her husband, John, have the tenancy of Yew Tree farm, a National Trust property once occupied by Beatrix Potter and which even featured in Miss Potter, the film starring Renée Zellweger. Although there are 700 acres, more than 250 of them are the stunning crags and fells of the Lake District National Park.
It is land suited only to livestock, which was why it appealed to the couple when they came here 10 years ago. They have around 90 Galloways and a few hundred head of Herdwick sheep, the stout-legged Lake District breed. “We decided to try to take out all the input costs by swapping to Galloways which can forage for their own food.” Likewise, they chose the Herdwicks even though they don’t breed until they are three years old and generally have only one lamb (rather than breeding at one year and having two lambs as with more standard breeds).
It was, she says, a move into a premium product, with a marketable back story: the landscape, the short supply chain, the Beatrix Potter associations. They set up their own meat business. They offered B&B accommodation, and even clambered on to the street food craze with a high-end burger van to trade at a local beauty spot. But they have been hit by both the weather and the tightening economy. “In 2011 we made 3,000 bales of hay,” she says. “Last year we couldn’t make any hay at all. Plus the quality of the silage was shocking. It started rotting because of the damp.” Like so many others in the industry, they will be having to supplement the feed. “This last year other things have started to hit us. B&B bookings dropped off at the same time as the caterers on the meat side of the business were tightening their belts. They all wanted more for less.”
Talking to these farmers, one theme comes up time and again: a failure by consumers to recognise the importance of the food supply. “There’s a lot of support for farmers out there,” says Edward Dennison. “Shoppers express a lot of sympathy. But then they go and shop on price alone.” Kit Dean agrees. “There were protests when the milk price was cut last year and that opened a few people’s eyes, but it can’t stop there.” Or as Caroline Watson puts it: “We should support British farming, buy quality food. Pass up the second holiday if necessary.”
One clear example they point to is lamb. First there was the poor feed situation, due to the weather, which led to more breeding sheep than usual being barren and therefore fewer animals to sell. Those that were available fattened more slowly because of that poor grazing. And then farmers were hit by the double whammy of a sudden glut of New Zealand lamb imports and a weakening in demand from Europe due to the eurozone crisis, which resulted in over-supply. Over the past few months, farm-gate prices for whole lambs have dropped by 25% and legs of lamb, by 17%. And yet, the National Farmers Union says, the price for lamb in the supermarkets has fallen only by 2%. On average, farmers are losing £29 for every lamb they sell. While some retailers, including Sainsbury’s, have promised to increase the prices they are paying, many of the big retailers are being criticised for not passing on revenue to farmers.
The irony is that, in global terms, this should be a boom time for farming. With the emerging middle classes in India and China fuelling demand for high quality food, and the sustainable intensification of agriculture on the international agenda, landowners and those who know how to farm it should all be well placed. “The medium to long term is very healthy,” says Allan Wilkinson, head of agriculture at HSBC, and himself from a farming family. “The short term is much more challenging.” The fear is, however, that with so many people leaving the industry, and fewer in-family farm successions, there won’t be enough farmers left in Britain when we finally reach those sunlit uplands.
But there is hope. At a tea room in Borrowdale, near Keswick, I meet a group of apprentices on the Hill Farming Succession Scheme, which is also funded by the PCF. A group of sturdy Cumbrian men aged between 17 and 24, sit about with mugs of tea, bantering as only a bunch of students who know each other too well can. “The statistics on succession are hard to come by,” says Veronica Waller of the Farmer Network, which runs the two-year course of work placements, training and day release for agricultural college. “But we set up because farmers themselves were talking about how tough it can be to get their sons and daughters to take over. It is a hard physical career and not vastly profitable.”
Very few of the men in the room come from farming families, though many of them worked on farms from a young age during school holidays. “My friends call me stupid for doing it,” says Matthew Aleixo, 21. “But I know I can make a living doing this.” The apprentices talk about the toughness of it. They don’t mind getting up stupidly early even on the darkest winter morning. They don’t mind the long hours. They all agree that school hadn’t worked for them. “Not being good at school is practically a qualification for being on this course,” says Veronica Waller, dryly. Or as another lad called Bobsy puts it: “It’s a gang. Once you’re in you can’t get out.”
These are dark times for British farming; the challenges are real and serious. That perfect storm of atrocious weather, global economic pressures and livestock disease has come together to create some of the harshest working conditions in living memory. And yet a vibrant, thriving agriculture sector is not some optional luxury. It’s not something we can take for granted. The availability of affordable, quality food – the robustness of British food security in the 21st century – depends upon it. Right now we need the enthusiasm of the likes of Matthew, Bobsy and their friends. Fragile as it sounds, they are our hope for the future.
Why the farming crisis means higher food prices
Food price rises are inevitable. At the heart of the problem is the way the British supermarkets work and how they interact with a global food market.
The brutal facts are these: harvests in the UK are down. The 14% shortfall in wheat is only part of the story. The poor quality of what has been harvested has forced manufacturers to look abroad for much more than that shortfall. In January, for example, Hovis dropped its commitment to use 100% British wheat. Likewise, in the same month, McCain’s broke its pledge to use 100% British potatoes, with British potato stocks down nearly 20% year on year. Vining pea yields are down 40%. Some apple varieties are down between 30% and 50%. And so it goes on.
The impact is two-fold. A smaller crop means higher prices. Inevitably there will be an even bigger shortfall from within the UK than usual and so retailers will have to look abroad. The problem for the mass retailers is that, with the rise of new food markets such as China, Brazil and India, there is also much more demand for the food produced internationally.
The British supermarket buyers have been used to dictating prices. They now have fierce global competition and increasingly they will find that prices will be dictated back to them. They will have to pass that cost on to the consumer.
Meanwhile, their desperate attempts to maintain the era of artificially cheap food are likely to push more farmers in the UK out of farming. Which in turn will force supermarkets to source even more from abroad. The role of the mass retailers in the farming crisis and, their failure to act responsibly, cannot be underestimated. It’s a failure which consumers will soon be able to measure in pounds and pence.
Jay Rayner’s book on the challenges of food security in the 21st century, A Greedy Man in a Hungry World, will be published in May.
Sales of certified Fairtrade products – from food to flowers – are soaring despite the recession, as the price gap with other goods shrinks
Have you eaten a banana today? Last year Britain imported an extraordinary 4bn bananas from some of the poorest parts of the world. But in a triumph for campaigners, one in three bananas consumed in this country is now certified as Fairtrade, guaranteeing fair prices for farmers.
While sales of organic food are sagging, Fairtrade is booming. Sales in 2012 were £1.57bn, up 19% on the year before.
In what has mushroomed into a mainstream sector, more than 4,500 items registered with the distinctive Fairtrade mark are on sale in UK supermarkets and independent shops to help ethically minded consumers do their bit to ensure fair and transparent pricing through the supply chain.
Few people realise that Britain leads the world on Fairtrade. The label now accounts for 10% of all tea sold in the UK, just over 8% of all roast and ground retail coffee and 12% of chocolate. Last year Britons drank 2bn cups of Fairtrade coffee, 3.2bn cups of tea and chomped their way through 1.3bn Fairtrade bananas.
The Fairtrade Foundation‘s new chief executive officer, Michael Gidney, says: “Fairtrade sales continue to confound expectation in the midst of the current tough economic climate. The UK public has developed a lasting appetite for food and goods traded on fairer terms with producers, and forward-thinking businesses are responding energetically to this by providing a wider range of products.”
Despite this progress, Fairtrade still has a long way to go, accounting for as little as 1.5% of the overall UK food and drink market.
The foundation is on a mission to dispel the idea that Fairtrade-stamped goods are automatically more expensive than their counterparts. Gidney says economies of scale resulting from the arrival of major corporate players and brands such as Cadbury, Nestlé and Starbucks mean that price premiums once passed on to the consumer can now be absorbed within the business.
A Guardian Money survey using mysupermarket.com found that in many product categories – for example, coffee and chocolate – both cheaper and more expensive comparable conventional products flank Fairtrade products on supermarket shelves.
The Co-operative supermarket chain has been at the forefront of developing mainstream Fairtrade products for its shelves. Since first backing Fairtrade in 1998, and introducing the UK’s first Fairtrade bananas in 2000, the Co-op has grown into the UK’s largest Fairtrade retailer, notching up a 20% sales increase last year.
Brad Hill, Fairtrade manager at the Co-op, says: “There is a perception that people still pay a premium for Fairtrade but that is no longer the case. This month we became the first retailer in the UK to switch all own-brand bunches of standard roses and single-stem roses to Fairtrade, sourced from Fairtrade-certified growers in Kenya. We kept the price the same – £5.”
But bananas tend to remain an exception, because small-scale growers cannot hope to compete with non-Fairtrade products sourced from low-wage, high-chemical-use plantations. For example, in Asda, Fairtrade bananas work out at 20p each, compared with 15p for regular bananas.
Sales of cocoa, sugar and bananas have all enjoyed significant growth – with increases of 21%, 35% and 15% respectively over 2011 figures – although coffee, tea and cotton have seen flatter sales. That may have something to do with the remaining price differentials: Waitrose Fairtrade coffee is nearly double the price of its Essential non-Fairtrade coffee. But Tesco’s Clipper Fairtrade tea bags are now just a few pence dearer than an equivalent box of PG Tips.
How are farmers benefiting? Fairtrade says it is helping 1.24 million people – farmers and workers – across more than 66 developing countries. It says it guarantees a fair price and a brighter future for growers. As well as getting a fair price for their crops, they receive a Fairtrade premium that is put back into their farms and communities for the benefit of themselves and their families.
But the movement is not without its critics. Some on the left argue that Fairtrade has sold out to the major brands, while those on the right, such as the Institute of Economic Affairs, say Fairtrade is just another brand with an exaggerated sense of self-importance, and is not in a position to help all farmers.
Fairtrade is confident that this year will see another strong rise in sales, especially in the chocolate category. Mars’s Maltesers brand is now Fairtrade, as is Cadbury’s Bubbly and the full range of Green & Black’s chocolate. Growth in sugar sales has been boosted by Morrisons switching its own-label range to Tate & Lyle Fairtrade sugar and Ben & Jerry’s completing the conversion of its full range to Fairtrade. At the same time, enterprising Fairtrade companies such as Divine chocolate, Cafédirect, Traidcraft and Equal Exchange have brought out attractive new products.
The Fairtrade Foundation says 2013 is already off to a good start, with businesses such as Divine launching its Bee Happy range and Nestlé extending Fairtrade to two-finger Kit Kats, nearly trebling the company’s purchases of cocoa and sugar on Fairtrade terms.
It’s not shocking that Anheuser-Busch might be watering down beers. The good news is the rich choice of craft alternatives
Allegations are flying around the web, news sites and social media that Anheuser-Busch InBev is watering down Budweiser in the US. Labels stating the strength of Budweiser are inaccurate, the lawsuit states. Anheuser-Busch InBev has denied these accusations, but that does not stop a suit where ex-employees of Anheuser-Busch have come forward to the plaintiff’s attorneys and said that Budweiser is watered down. Personally, I’m not sure anyone can tell what watered down water tastes like but, that aside, I like to deal in facts, not rumor and speculation.
Is Anheuser-Busch watering down Budweiser? I would say the answer is, more than likely, yes. Should that be shocking to you? No, and let me tell you why. I think Anheuser-Busch might add water, to water down Budweiser or any of the other beers named in the lawsuit, at the end of the brewing process to achieve the desired and labelled ABV (alcohol by volume). In brewing, their will always be inconsistencies. Raw ingredients will vary from year to year and field to field no matter how detailed and specific you are in sourcing these ingredients.
Common sense tells me, if I want a consistent 5% ABV beer, then I should brew a beer that is consistently stronger than 5% ABV and add a little water to each batch to achieve the desired and labelled 5% ABV. This is how distilleries achieve their desired ABV – or proof – on a bottle of whiskey or vodka.
Attorney Josh Boxer of San Rafael, California, who represents plaintiff Nina Giampaoli of Sonoma County, is privy to a lot more of the facts than we currently are, but for every winning lawsuit, there is another that is a loss. We have yet to see any proof. Former Anheuser-Busch employees stating that it is corporate practice to water down their beer sounds damning, but lets wait on the facts. How come there was not an attorney saying,
“We have tested cans and bottles of Budweiser, randomly selected from different stores throughout the state of California, and found that, of those cans and bottles tested, a significant percentage of them showed a lower alcohol by volume than as advertised on the product’s label.”
That would put more weight in the plaintiff’s claim. It would make me feel like the lawsuit had teeth.
Should the allegations prove to be true, Anheuser-Busch InBev will lose in court. They will pay monetarily and might be fined by the government but does a company that is buying the remaining portion of Grupo Modelo for $20.1 bn care that they lost a lawsuit for a few million dollars? Anheuser-Busch InBev’s reputation will be tarnished, they will lose a few dollars, stockholders will be upset, but the average beer drinker is still going to buy his or her 6-pack, 12-pack or case of Budweiser at the grocery store on Friday. This same consumer probably cannot tell the difference between 4% ABV Budweiser and 5% ABV Budweiser. I’m not sure even I could.
What I will say to those that continually buy Budweiser, Miller or Coors is that watered-down, flavorless beer is not a new invention. Eighty percent of American beer drinkers drink it as their beer of choice. Put back the case of Budweiser or Bud Light (aka Macro Beer or Big Beer) and buy a craft beer that is made locally. Load Google or Bing or Yahoo in your web browser and search for a local brewery in your town.
On average, everyone in the US lives within 10 miles of a craft brewery so, more than likely, you will find a local brewery within a short drive of your home or place of work. Some of these craft breweries will bottle their beer, others will sell only draft beer but they may sell 64-ounce growlers of fresh, local beer for you to take home. Start out with one of their lighter craft beers, which will be stronger and taste better than macro beer you’re used to. A pale ale, cream ale or kölsch style ale would be a good starting point.
You’ll find a whole new world of beer is out there, and it is called craft beer. We have over 2,000 craft breweries in the US that brew up a wonderful product day in and day out. Buy local, fresh craft beer that is made by breweries who employ local people. It won’t taste like water.
Data also shows decline in frozen ready meals as Whitbread calls for overhaul of how processed meat industry is regulated
Sales of frozen beefburgers have decreased by 43% since the start of the horsemeat scandal as shoppers steer clear of products they fear might not be quite what they claim on the label.
Data from market research firm Kantar Worldpanel shows sales of frozen ready meals have also been hit, down 13% since the Food Safety Authority of Ireland said in mid-January that it had found horsemeat in beefburgers destined for sale in retailers including Tesco, Lidl and Aldi.
The figure also shows Tesco, which was one of the most affected after 100% horsemeat was found in its own-brand lasagnes, suffered its worst monthly fall in market share for at least 20 years in the four weeks to 17 February. Kantar said this was more likely because of a reduction in big promotions compared with a year ago, rather than shoppers staying away in protest against the scandal. However, retail analysts at Barclays said Tesco “may indeed be suffereing a degree of consumer backlash”.
Edward Garner, director at Kantar, said: “There is still a huge rebuilding of trust for retailers to do. We won’t see a bounce back in frozen meat sales for a while, until this has been resolved in the courts.”
The supermarket chain Morrisons, which runs its own abattoirs, revealed last week it had seen a boost in fresh meat sales. There have also been increases