OPINION: Supermarkets’ pro-farm spin is a bit rich

When did dishonesty become acceptable? Horsegate, in particular, and recently the scandal involving fake repatriation ceremonies for fallen American soldiers, have all highlighted the casual attitude that politicians, big companies and governments have to the truth.

When, in people’s minds, did it become acceptable for anyone to mislead the public?

Recently, I made the obligatory pilgrimage to the mecca of retail therapy in Sheffield, known affectionately as Meadowhell, and whilst the daughters trawled the trendy outlets I walked around Marks and Spencer looking to pinch new foodie ideas for my shop.

Up on the wall behind the till was a beautiful photograph of a farmer with his free range pigs, all looking happy and rootling away. The caption read “John Mearns has been farming pigs in Oxfordshire for 25 years. His animals can root freely and cool in the wallows, behaving naturally.” Lovely.

However, what M&S is trying to imply, subliminally perhaps, is that all their pork is free range and lovely. It is not.

In our local market town of Brigg, Tesco has recently clad its store in timber. It has made a lovely new wooden sign to replace the neon one and bedecked the trolley parks in, well, decking. Presumably this superficial facelift was meant to convince us that Tesco has suddenly turned all green and farm-friendly.

Asda and Morrisons parade their “local” farmers on the front of vegetable bags yet the carrots and potatoes have been driven halfway across the country to be processed. Are Farmer John’s carrots really in that bag… really?! More subterfuge.

Do they think that consumers are all daft? Farm shop owners are used to men in suits (although they’ve learnt to dress down now) coming around looking at our farm shops and restaurants and fair enough – I pick up many a fabulous marketing idea from the supermarkets. However, why are the supermarkets pretending to be something they’re not?

Waitrose has opened a beautiful, new, expensive “farm shop” and I am sure it will do well. It is connected to the Leckford Estate in Hampshire, but does a huge company like John Lewis have what it takes to communicate a real passion for the farm and the food? Not all locals will be convinced.

What better way to convince customers to shop with you and believe in you, than to pay suppliers properly for their produce? In my future benevolent dictatorship (inspired by my brother, who should be prime minister), supermarkets will have to:

 Pay the farmers a fair price;

 Cancel any sinister rebate /marketing schemes;

 Have contracts that they must stick to;

 Make sure that buyers stay in the same sector for at least five years allowing relationships to be built.

Maybe, just maybe, the supermarkets will find that by paying producers a fair price and telling their customers why they are paying a tiny bit more, they will enhance their reputations. Transparency in all things.

I am not saying that all smaller retailers are blameless (including farm shops), it is just that trust is local. A farm shop or local retailer survives and thrives on honesty and trust – hence our average 25% uplift on meat sales all through Horsegate.

FARMA helps and encourages farm shops and farmers markets all over the country to be true to their roots and to the farm. This is the honesty that in the last few years has helped us, in our own tiny way, gain ground with the supermarkets. We will be at the Farm Business Innovation Show at Olympia on 28-29 November, so please come and chat with us if you are mad enough to want to start up a farm shop or just need some ongoing advice.

So, supermarkets, stop trying to be holier than thou, green and farmy and treat your suppliers and customers to honesty and transparency.

The theme of pretending to be something you are not continued when the current husband and I travelled to London to the Farmer’s Weekly Awards. Andrew had booked a hotel near Victoria which was billed as “high tech”. So extensive were the gadgets that we had to have a detailed explanation of how to work the room from the porter.

Andrew took great delight in switching the glass in the bathroom from clear to opaque whilst I showered – you can take the farmer from the farm, but never get rid of his fascination for gadgets. I couldn’t even have a cup of tea in the morning without some hi-tech disturbance.

Suddenly, one end of the bed was lifting up, followed by my feet being raised, followed by the bed indulging me in a back massage, whilst my tea spilt all over the sheets. The wall-to-wall mirrors in the bathroom were a worry too.

Andrew and I both decided that the image in our heads of ourselves does not really match up to reality. Thank goodness for nature – as your body starts to get older, so do your eyes!

I made the trip to London twice that month. The second being to Westminster Abbey to celebrate food and farming. The Abbey was filled with children who had come to present boxes of homegrown and homemade goodies.

They were incredibly excited and so proud of their boxes. I heard someone say, “it’s nice for farmers to get good press for once”, and it certainly is.

See more