23 February 1996

Future is in working together

By Tim Relf

UK farmers must work with each other, with abattoirs and with retailers if they are to remain competitive.

That was one of the messages given at the farmers weekly, Sentry Farming and Brown and Co conference at Linton Hall, Cambs, last week.

Though there had been an encouraging growth in joint ventures, there was now a need for a "massive take-up", especially in the cattle and sheep sector, said MLC chairman Don Curry.

Traceability is vital

Quality standards and traceability were vital in maintaining consumer confidence, both at home and abroad, he said. And though such products would eventually command a premium in the market, farmers should not expect that benefit straight away.

"Farmers have to resist the temptation to return to short-term opportunistic trading," he said.

The only alternative to co-operation was least-cost production, with farmers riding the market "rollercoaster".

But the driving force for partnerships tended to come from retailers or abattoirs. Farmer controlled businesses did not have a good track record in trying to integrate into the food chain. Their expertise needed to be supplemented by wider business know-how, he added.

President of the NFU, Sir David Naish, meanwhile, described collaboration as "a must, not a maybe". But he thought the red-meat sector was dragging its feet over traceability.

The "ad-hoc, confrontational" approach of the past to marketing must end, he said.

Partnerships were hard work and involved the sharing of information, cautioned Sainsburys managing director Tom Vyner. But the agenda for partnership was long and urgent, he added. "By directly sourcing products we ensure full traceability and can guarantee on-farm welfare and production standards."

But rigorous standards had meant the firm has had to part company with some suppliers.

Stressing the importance of "buying British", Mr Vyner said 80% of Sainsburys fresh produce came from the UK. "We take 100% where seasonality allows and are keen to encourage UK suppliers to extend their growing season."

But there is no point in pushing this to the point where a tasteless product results, he added.

Don Curry: Farmers do not have a good track record of forging new partnerships in the food chain.

Tom Vyner: Partnerships are hard work, but are an integral part of ensuring traceability.