The title for this post may seem a little confusing and all encompassing. That’s because I’ve just returned from an event that challenged my view about where the great and the good of the farming industry think that farming is heading.
Straddling the line between conservation and farming means that I at least try to attend a good range of different sector events in both camps (although not nearly as many as I would like). This certainly gives you a diversity of opinion and I hope it will stand me in good stead going in to the future. Anyway, tonight I was fortunate enough that the local Gloucestershire NFU organised for Sir Peter Kendall, the ex NFU President and current Chair of the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) to come to the RAU to speak to NFU members and RAU students about AHDB and answer questions relating to the future of the industry. As someone who doesn’t generally follow the agenda of the NFU I surprised myself in being so much in agreement with a man who was for eight years their commander in chief.
Above: Peter Kendall (sourced from twitter)
Kendall is a super speaker and clearly passionate about improving prospects for UK farmers both at home and in markets overseas. He spoke with great eloquence and optimism about the future but was realistic about the challenges ahead and the role that the AHDB can play in the times of a changing market. After ten to fifteen minutes of setting the scene, illustrating the back story of AHDB before he became involved and restraining himself from monologuing about Margaret Beckett’s role as a previous Environment Secretary, he came to his key points:
- The AHDB is not a representative body – that is the role of the NFU – but it works FOR farmers.
- Farmers should be at the centre of everything the AHDB does
- Strategy should be targeted and key actions decided upon by individual AHDB boards (beef and sheep, dairy, potatoes etc)
- The AHDB needs to move farming forward as a whole industry rather than favouring a certain sector one week and a different sector the following week.
- Key in the minds of AHDB board members should be: ‘how can I most effectively help the farmers I am working for and what do I need to do to achieve this?’
- The Irish, Dutch and Danes are hungry for our growing UK market – UK farmers need to grab this market first and give UK consumers a reason for choosing them.
- We need to know the future market trends and work to fulfil them.
This last point was something that, on reflection, poses a real issue for the British farming industry, if we are to continue to focus our efforts principally on the UK market. Like it or not consumer trends are changing and as my own generation marches up the ladder of life, eating habits are also changing. What about the growing population of vegetarians. What about younger people who hardly eat lamb anymore (massive generalisation I know but I think it’s a true observation). What about ready meals, eating out and needing to cook something quickly at the end of a hectic day? All of these things farming is going to have to cope with.
When I think of it, me and the people below 35 who I know eat far less meat than the two generations above us. I can only speak for my own demographic but I would predict that at the time meat consumption rises in Asia, it will be falling in the west. People are increasingly becoming ‘flexitarian‘, defined as somebody who doesn’t eat meat for most of the time for whatever reason but will occasionally tuck into a steak or a salmon fillet. Indeed, although I wouldn’t call myself as such, I am probably amongst this camp. I want to support the British meat industry but the reality is that I don’t want a ‘mid week mini roast‘ (that Kendall mentioned several times in his presentation this evening). When I eat meat I want to eat good meat and I simply couldn’t eat it every day. This is my reality and I think it is the reality for many younger people.
A couple of years ago the Independent ran an article questioning whether 2014 was the year that vegans became mainstream? It may have been slightly overexaggerating but it hit on a trend and this trend must not be ignored. UK stock farmers more than most will have to wake up and recognise it. The generation of meat and two veg is moving on in favour of a cuisine that is more varied and, perhaps, just perhaps, more vegetarian.
I hope that the AHDB will emphasise research in to this changing nutritional and gastronomic demographic.
Anyway, back to this evening’s talk…
In the Q&A session it was clear to see that all the farmers attending were struggling in their own way. I read about this all the time in the farming mags or on BBC farming today and hear from the odd farmer here and there but it always seems more real when you have a room full of farmers and they are all saying the same thing – even if they are all from different areas of the industry. From the struggles of pig farmers to sheep farmers and of course the poor plight of arable farmers (as I have experienced with my own family’s farm since the last harvest), beef and dairy with the continuing fiasco of TB and the milk prices crisis – there are many issues out there. However, the main thing that farmers are never going to be able to escape, is that if you produce a commodity product and everybody else has a good year you are hit by the basic economic system of supply and demand. It just so happens that there is a heck of a lot of product out there at the moment, swimming around in a market that isn’t consuming as much.
What we really need moving forward is innovation and a means of understanding the future market and understanding how to fulfil the needs of that market. All of this I believe Kendall is driving for, even if I reckon we have slightly different weekly menus/eating habits. I certainly have confidence in him. I’m just not sure that between the agendas of lobby groups (not just farming but conservation bodies and other groups), a government food, farming and environment department that is facing increasing pressure and seemingly endless cuts and the incredibly complex and changing market, whether he can make the impact he wants and needs to.