Beef and lamb producers are confident of a bright future, despite immediate problems with soaring input costs and disease.

Speakers and delegates alike painted an upbeat picture at a joint NFU/Meat South West conference in Exeter on Tuesday (February 26).

“Things are still a little bit fragile, but we’re heading in the right direction,” said mixed farmer Anthony Rew.

“If we can get over a few difficulties with the supply chain and diseases I think the future is looking bright.”

Doubling of world food demand

Meurig Raymond, deputy NFU president, said population growth and poverty reduction could lead to a doubling of world food demand by 2050, with a shift towards meat consumption.

“Agricultural production needs to rise by 3% annually, but it has only been rising by 1.5% over the past five to ten years.”

Over that time the EU had moved from being a net exporter of beef to a net importer, and that trend was likely to continue, said Mr Raymond.

“There’s a message there for the supply chain about security of supply – it is extremely important that they send the right signals down the chain to us.”

Wholesomeness of food

Suckler beef numbers in Ireland were declining, and abattoirs were very nervous about securing beef, which had already pushed prices up sharply, said Mr Raymond.

“I believe the industry has started to turn the corner. There’s been very little investment over the past 10 years so there’s a big catch-up required. But it’s an interesting time to be farming and I am confident.”

Society was increasingly interested in agriculture, as farmers’ actions impacted on the wholesomeness of food, welfare of animals and the look and biodiversity of the countryside, said Essex farmer Guy Smith.

With growing concern about food miles, obesity, climate change and sustainability, now was the ideal time to reconnect with the consumer through embracing farm visits and the media, he reckoned.

“For some reason the trust has broken down between farmers and society over the past decade and we’ve got to be forthcoming about the good things that we do – no-one else is going to do it for us,” said Mr Smith.

Actively engaging with the media

Erecting information boards on footpaths, hosting farm visits and actively engaging with the media were all ways to get positive messages over to the general public, he added.

Other ways to connect with the consumer and secure greater margins were innovative product development, branding and selling.

“The closer you can get to your consumer the better the margin will be,” said Simon Michaels, director of marketing co-operative f3 and creator of online farmers’ market, www.localfoodshop.co.uk.

The complete package

By forming distribution hubs and working together, farmers could approach new customers with a complete package, and remain in control of the whole supply chain.

“People don’t just want to go into the mainstream and keep losing money – they want to do something different,” said Martin Howlett, Farmers Weekly’s Management Matters farmer in Cornwall. “We’ve got to find a fresh angle for beef and sheep production – but the mood is upbeat. There’s still a long way to go but at least we’ve turned the corner.”

In the short-term, bluetongue remained the greatest threat to livestock producers, said Dorset farmer James Bowditch.

“The summer is going to be a nightmare if we don’t get the vaccine in time. And input costs have gone through the roof. But this year is the first time since I’ve been farming that I can do a positive cash flow.”

John Alliston, dean of agriculture at the Royal Agricultural College, said he hoped the brighter future would encourage more young people to come into the industry.

“Now is a time of big change – some of the challenges are still there but I think we are going forward to a time when we’re going to be needed and we’re going to be wanted.”