TALKING POINT-JOHN CLARKE
WATCHING TV over the festive period reminded me that I am of an age when every Saturday there was wrestling on the telly. Few of the contests were more uneven than farmers v supermarkets.
Supermarkets have got farmers in an “armlock”. This is one of our Prime Minister’s unhelpful remarks. Even less helpful is that there has been no reduction in the armlock. In a recent interview farm minister Mrs Beckett said there is 86% satisfaction with rural services. From my non-scientific surveying, the satisfaction level among farmers struggles to exceed 8.6%.
Farmers will have to remove the armlock. Today, (Jan 21) I am part of a delegation meeting representatives of Sainsbury’s. The aim is not to remove the armlock but to show the retailer that we are in an armlock.
Farmers no longer have the numbers to exert political influence. What has moved in farmers’ direction is the willingness of the public to get involved. Food scares and the growth in consumer organisations have created an opportunity for a farming voice to be heard.
With that in mind, the Fair Price for GM Free Milk Alliance, a broad coalition of farmers, environmentalists and others, has been formed. We are campaigning for a farmgate price for milk that will enable farmers to farm sustainably and also sell milk at a profit. Our canvassing has found that:
85% of the public are opposed to GM feed being used for cattle. 90% of the public believe farmers should receive a fair farm gate price.
As part of our campaign we recently had our first meeting with senior representatives of Sainsbury’s.
I arrived at the first meeting with a feeling of antagonism towards supermarkets. They are destroying our rural culture, social structure and history. Farm incomes for milk are negative and there seems little prospect of a future.
One of the opening questions was: Does J Sainsbury PLC recognise the importance of small farms?
The answer was enlightening. For five to ten minutes the reply did not mention “small farms”; did not mention farm income; did not mention farmgate prices; did not mention 40 farms driven out of milk every week. They were totally unaware of the farming crisis. Talk was all about the market and their discussions with the wholesalers. My anger rose. Our picketing and campaigning needs to be maintained. The public should be made aware of how we are abused.
Why are they oblivious to the rural crisis? Why are they unaware of the plight of the dairy farms? Why do they believe that GM feed cannot affect milk? The answers to these questions and hence enlightenment occurred on the train journey home from the first meeting.
Supermarkets don’t deal with small farms. The government doesn’t know about farmers’ predicament. Their knowledge of GM was limited – again no one to tell them. The traditional farm unions don’t deliver the case for farms to either the government or the supermarkets.
The problems between farmers and supermarkets can be summed up in one word – communication.
Farmers are paid less for milk than the cost of production. Sainsbury’s customers do not expect Sainsbury’s milk to come from cows fed with GM maize. Sainsbury’s believes it has a corporate social responsibility. The above issues should keep a social responsibility department busy.
No one is informing the government or the supermarkets of the effect on small farms or the social structure of the countryside. Sainsbury’s has made a good start. It has opened negotiations with the representatives from small farms organisations. Here is an opportunity for it to take a lead.
Our canvassing shows there is a big opportunity for any supermarket. The supermarket must of course listen to the message coming from farmers and the public. Farmers must be paid above the cost of production. That will allow them not only to farm at a profit but also sustainably and in a way expected by the public.