5 June 1998

Closure – views differ

over blame

Farmers say supermarkets

are killing livestock

auctions. But many

auctioneers dont believe them. Johann Tasker reports

GOING, going, gone? It certainly seems like it. Banbury market yesterday joined a growing list of livestock auctions which have shut up shop forever. Over the past six months, markets at Kidderminster, Canterbury, and Wickham have all closed. But the closure of Banbury is the biggest blow so far.

Banburys owners, Midland Marts, blame the markets downfall on the BSE crisis and a switch away from livestock production. But many farmers lay the blame on supermarkets which, they say, are killing off live auctions by buying stock direct from farmers.

"Supermarkets dont like livestock auctions because they cant control the prices," says Alan Cockburn, a farmer who has sold cattle at Banbury for the past 30 years. "They want the best possible stock at the cheapest possible prices."

The number of finished cattle sold through live auctions has dropped dramatically since 1990. Over the same period, the proportion of meat sold through supermarkets has boomed. Supermarkets now sell 70% of all meat, according to the Meat and Livestock Commission. The problem is, supermarkets just wont go to market.

But auctioneers refuse to believe that supermarkets are driving live auctions out of business. John Martin, secretary of Livestock Auctioneers Assoc- iation, admits that markets have closed but says auctions such as Canterbury didnt sell a great deal of stock anyway.

"Its premature to talk of the death of the live auction," he says. "The shift to direct selling has been over-emphasised. A lot of people quote the number of markets that have closed but a number of those markets havent gone under, theyve relocated."

Nevertheless, the number of cattle continues to decline. Norwich market, currently being rebuilt just a few hundred yards from its present site, has seen its throughput slump from 1,500 cattle a day in the 1960s to fewer than 300 today.

"There arent the cattle there used to be," says David Pond of auctioneers Irelands. "Keeping stock is a seven days-a-week job but farmers dont want that. They prefer arable farming. There obviously is direct selling but we still have a strong influence over the local trade that remains."

Down the road at Wickham in Suffolk, Philip Dale of auctioneers Lacey Scott and Knight, agrees. Wickham market closed last year and merged with nearby Bury St Edmunds. But that was due to falling numbers of livestock in the Eastern counties, rather than any trend towards direct selling, Mr Dale says.

"Retailers obviously want to source stock from the farm, but just how far it will go remains to be seen. I dont think Ive spoken to a farmer who hasnt moaned about a supermarket. They all recognise that the buying power is in too few hands and they dont like it. But not everyone sells stock direct and theres still a big demand for a market."

Some auctioneers believe it is actually farmers, rather than supermarkets, who could put live auctions out of business.

"Its certainly on the horizon if farmers dont support their local market and continue perhaps to support the whims of the supermarkets," says auctioneer Roger Sadler of Kidderminster market which closed in January. Kidderminster was well supported but closed because the local council chose not to renew its licence, Mr Sadler says.

Other livestock markets, such as Cockermouth, are more lucky.

"Were actually looking to expand," says John Marrs of Mitchells Auction Co Ltd. "Cumbria in general is very livestock market orientated. The chief reason is its restricted accessibility. There arent many roads where supermarket buyers can take a large wagon to collect stock."

So will live auctions survive? George Dunn, chief executive of the Tenant Farmers Association, believes it is vital they do.

Important link

"Livestock markets are an extremely important link in the supply chain," he says. "They set the price for the deadweight market and we very much support them. Certainly there will be an element of direct selling to multiples but we want to have a vibrant and strong market sector."

Even those who buy for the supermarkets have no problem with that. Richard Phelps, manager of Tescos Southern Counties Producers Club says he believes direct selling is the way of the future but refuses to criticise anybody who thinks differently.

"Every outlet has its place and one thing we wont get into is running down another way of marketing stock," he says.

In the words of David Sawday, Tescos corporate affairs manager: "Its a simple matter of supply and demand. Farmers are businessmen and theyre free to sell to whoever they choose."

"Retailers want to source stock from the farm," says Phbilip Dale, auctioneer.

"its a simple matter of supply and demand." says David Sawday, Tesco.

"We want a vibrant market sector,"says George Dunn of the TFA.

ARE supermarkets really killing livestock auctions?

"Its certainly on the horizon if farmers dont support their local market and continue perhaps to support the whims of the supermarkets." Roger Sadler, auctioneer at Kidderminster market, which closed in January.

"Retailers obviously want to source stock from the farm. That sort of move has been on for a few years now, but just how far it will go remains to be seen." Philip Dale of auctioneers Lacey, Scott and Knight, Bury St Edmunds.

"Were actually looking to expand." John Marrs of auctioneers Mitchells, Cockermouth.

"Every outlet has its place, be it marketing liveweight or deadweight." Richard Phelps, manager of Tescos Southern Counties Producers Club.

"Its premature to talk of the death of the live auction – the shift to direct selling has been over-emphasised." John Martin, secretary of the Livestock Auctioneers Association.