COMPETITION FOR Britain”s food market has seldom been greater. It”s not a new phenomenon – our population, now 60m, has attracted exporters for generations.
North American wheat, Argentinean beef, New Zealand lamb and butter, Danish bacon and so on, have all been established here for 100 years or more. Since the Second World War governments and the EU have used various means to help insulate domestic farmers from the competition.
But that insulation is on the way out and in this age of global trade and overnight airfreight from virtually anywhere in the world the number of exporters has expanded exponentially. Some of the foods coming in are either ethnic or exotic or both.
One of the main reasons I have arranged farm study tours over the years has been to try to assess, together with other farmers weekly readers, the probable competition from different locations around the globe. Now, more than ever, farmers need to experience such situations for themselves. Reading about it, in FW for example, is a big help. But it”s no real substitute for visiting the fields, kicking the clods and talking to the principals of those farms and businesses most likely to pose the biggest threat to UK farm prosperity.
Last May we went to central Europe to look at some of the former communist countries that had just joined the EU. The speed with which some of them had progressed since the collapse of the Soviet Union had to be seen to be believed. There can be little doubt their membership of the EU will ensure more of their farm produce heading our way soon.
But we had time only to look at a few of the 10 new member states. A couple of the most advanced, both socially and agriculturally, are Latvia and Lithuania and I have had a small hand in helping set up what promises to be a fascinating visit next July. Once again the tour will feature both native and British-run farms and it will be instructive to compare the two. Reports from contacts suggest most expat Brits are doing much better than they would if they had stayed in this country.
Meanwhile, I”m taking a FW party to Cuba in late February. I shall report what we see when we get back, but I already know we shall be looking at a number of enterprises in which UK firms have an interest. There are, for instance, potential Cuban purchasers of seed potatoes from Britain. Needless to say, the Cubans hope to export a sizeable part of the crop back to Britain.
And then, of course, we shall be studying sugar. That will include the vexed question of EU sugar regime reform and how Cuban cane growers view the opportunities it would supposedly provide for them. I strongly suspect those opportunities are regarded more favourably by EU politicians than by most of the people they say they want to help. But that”s a subject for another column.
I am also finalising details for another tour I am taking in June.
That one starts in northern Russia, centred on St Petersburg, where I shall be keen to see the changes since I last visited 15 years ago during Gorbachev”s time. We will then travel by train to Helsinki, Finland where we”ll spend a few days looking around farms; then by ferry to Stockholm for a few days in Sweden, ending the trip by coach to Oslo and a short stay studying Norway.
So, the trip will begin outside the EU, continue through two member states and end in another non-member. Scandinavia is, of course highly sophisticated in every sense compared with Russia and that alone will make an interesting comparison. But all the countries on the route have shorter summers and harsher winters than ours, or most of the rest of the EU.
So, how do those farmers who work under the same EU rules compete against the rest of us?
One way is by doing different things, such as forestry, which they seem to do better and more profitably than we do. I have the impression that they also diversify more than we have done in the past and we shall be investigating the truth or otherwise of that assumption.
One visit I”m looking forward to will be to a firm that makes sectional log cabins and affordable rural houses.
All trips are organised by Jill Lewis at the Agricultural Travel Bureau, Newark (Tel 01636 705612). She will provide details for readers interested in joining the tours.