HOW MANY times have there been calls to improve the image of our industry? It’s a bit like co-operation and better marketing – both important, but which only happen in pockets, never industry wide.
That does not mean we shouldn’t strive for such objectives. But we should have no illusions that it is easy, especially with the limited funds available. We must also accept that the image is just the bit that shows. If it does not improve things below the surface it will have failed.
The latest call to revamp farming’s image has come from the NFU. Its author is Rachel Oliver, the union’s communications director, who joined the organisation from an essentially urban background. Having gestated the industry’s problems for nine months she has given birth to a communications baby that has been adopted by the leadership. It is built around five key messages.
The first and most important is consumer focus. If farmers are not producing commodities buyers want they are unlikely to succeed. The only flaw is that producers in other countries are increasingly able to undercut us. Furthermore, the trend towards ever more globalisation is encouraging processors and retailers to seek out the cheapest sources in the world. All too often this leaves the UK producer unable to compete and/or forced to sell at a loss.
The second message in the NFU strategy is business argument.
Presumably this means negotiating the best possible deals and contracts when buying or selling. There is a clear implication here of the extra business strength that can be derived from working with others. But even the biggest UK co-operative is a business minnow compared with the might of Cargills, and Wal-Mart.
Third and fourth in the NFU’s strategy are environmental integrity and product responsibility. I believe British farmers have made enormous strides in those areas recently, the vast majority voluntarily without cost to the Exchequer.
There is now greater awareness of farmers’ responsibility to the environment than I can remember in my lifetime and probably ever. More trees have been planted, more hedges repaired, more care taken of habitats, over the past few years than have ever been recognised by the public or the government.
Although the Little Red Tractor still has its critics, it is the most widely recognised symbol of product responsibility UK farming has ever had. That is not to say recognition is universal, but it is the best we have got and every effort should be made to improve both its coverage and the assurance it provides. For example, by linking up with Linking Environment And Farming (LEAF). Demands should also be made that processors and supermarkets pay fair prices for that assurance. So far, most of the benefits have gone to them.
Furthermore, if we are ever to be successful at persuading consumers to buy home-produced food in preference to inferior foreign goods, that success will be based on environmental, ethical and safety grounds, not price. We will never be able to compete against Third World imports while the workers who produce them continue to be exploited and fresh goods can be flown in using untaxed aviation fuel.
The final message around which the NFU communications strategy is based is internal confidence, and here I have a problem. If we are talking standard food production, and by putting consumer focus at the top of the list that is firmly implied, I wonder how such confidence can be generated. I for one have little internal confidence and I know of few farmers who have.
Most that I know have more confidence in making their assets work in any way except producing food. Letting surplus cottages, renting out spare storage, environmental schemes and diversification seem to hold more promise for most. And if that means walking away from producing food and simply taking the single farm payment, so be it. The trouble is that when such news reaches consumers, a lot of the NFU’s image building may be demolished.
The NFU also says farmers should be positive and not whinge at government. I am unclear as to the exact definition of whingeing. Some might accuse me of doing it in the previous paragraph. But I would put the counter argument that taking issue with a policy that you believe is wrong for farming and wrong for Britain is not so much whingeing as trying to get that policy changed.