22 October 1999
Farmers take on supermarkets

by Robert Davies and Johann Tasker

A HANDFUL of farmers has embarked on an audacious attempt to take on Britains supermarkets by opening their own foodstores across the country.

Eleven farmers and five local businessmen from Monmouthshire, Wales, plan to open a national chain of food outlets on the outskirts of major towns.

The farmers met recently in the small town of Raglan and voiced concern about being squeezed by any price war between supermarkets.

They decided the only alternative was to help themselves by retailing their own produce to sell local milk, dairy products, vegetables, meat and fruit.

The meeting was arranged by Rhys Parry, a veteran of farmers protests against supermarkets, and Terry Bayliss, chairman of the Farmers Ferry.

Mr Bayliss said the whole project was at a very early stage and he was already hearing from doubters who said it will never get off the ground.

But he added: “The response from people who have heard about the meeting has been tremendous.

“They know that the big retailers are screwing them, and that things will get worse. We cant beat them so we will have to join them by selling direct.”

Mr Parry said each member of the group had already donated £2000 to the initiative and £250,000 could be raised if 125 people did the same.

The shops would sell locally produced meat, milk, dairy products, vegetables and fruit.

Although the project is ambitious, the farmers hope to secure support, retail advice and possibly space from existing agricultural supply co-operatives.

They will be heartened to know that Asda, one of Britains biggest retailers, traces its roots back to a similar farmer-led initiative during the 1920s.

Asda spokeswoman Rachel Fellows said the supermarket remained mindful of its heritage and still worked closely with some of its older local suppliers.

“That sort of closeness enables us to work more efficiently with producers,” she said. “This is where a farmer-operated group would have an advantage.”

But food retailing has changed completely since Asda opened its first shop, said Hayley Myers, analyst at London-based consultants Retail Intelligence.

“The grocery sector is one of the most competitive and concentrated markets in the UK,” she said.

But the farmers might break into the market if they differentiate themselves from existing outlets by selling local produce, added Ms Myers.

“They cant hope to compete on price but there certainly is a gap in the market if they offer something in addition to the weekly shop.”

The farmers plan to meet again in early November after investigating how many other producers are prepared to support the project.

If interest is in south east Wales is strong, a national appeal will be launched asking every farmer to donate £5/acre (£12/ha).