Time for farmers to cross the chasm says Kent Business School’s Dr Andrew Fearne

How many times have we heard people bemoaning the fact that farmers are disconnected, marginalised, production orientated and blissfully ignorant of who it is that finally consumes the food they produce?

And how many times have we heard farmers complaining about the lack of interest shown by consumers in the provenance of food, how it is produced and the importance of farming to the rural community and the preservation of the environment?

Many Believe there is a gulf, even a chasm, between farmers at one end of the food chain and consumers at the other and there are not enough farmers willing to take steps to bridge the gap.

This is the view of Andrew Fearne, principal research fellow at Kent Business School and director of the dunnhumby Academy of consumer research, set up in April 2005 to provide farmers and small food producers with unique insights into the food purchasing behaviour of over 1.2m supermarket shoppers.

“We have spent the past 12 months persuading the levy boards to support this initiative and sponsor PhD students to mine this amazing database on behalf of farmers and small food producers, but we have found it really difficult to get farmers interested,” explains Dr Fearne.

The government is encouraging farmers to connect with consumers in an effort to understand better their needs, wants, attitudes and perceptions, to compete more effectively against imports and move away from commodity agriculture, but Dr Fearne believes too many farmers believe the consumers should be coming to them not the other way round. He is very critical of this mentality.

“Farmers struggle to grasp the fact that to get consumers interested in what they do they must start by understanding what it is that interests consumers and why different people behave in different ways when it comes to buying food.

If they leave that task to other people in the chain then they only have themselves to blame when they get left with the scraps from selling basic commodities to whoever and whenever.”

Understanding

Dr Fearne has spent more than 20 years working with farmers and small food producers helping them gain a better understanding of what consumers want and looking at their businesses from outside-in rather than inside-out and has seen the impact this can have on business profitability.

“Farmers assume that food manufacturers and retailers know all there is to know about the final consumer so there is no point in them investing in consumer research.

But the fact is that for many groups of food products on the supermarket shelves nobody has a clue who is buying them, why they are buying them, what happens when they are discounted or merchandised in a certain way – it’s often the case of the blind leading the blind and the farmer is often the one that suffers the most as a result of over supply or poor positioning of products with distinct attributes but targeted at nobody in particular,” he says.

dunnhumby is the architect of the UK’s largest consumer database created for the Tesco Clubcard and is part-owned by Tesco, so sceptics may question what they see as a PR exercise for Tesco, given the reputation that big supermarkets have for their treatment of small suppliers and the farming community as a whole. This claim is fiercely refuted by Dr Fearne, whose roots are in agriculture.

Supportive

“It is important to appreciate that the dunnhumby Academy is a joint initiative between dunnhumby and Kent Business School and not a Tesco initiative.

Tesco is very supportive of it, but it is being driven by dunnhumby and Kent Business School together, to provide the UK’s farming community with consumer insight that will increase its capacity to compete against the growing threat of imported food.

“There are no strings attached, no hidden agendas and no costs to farmers for accessing this information. The levy boards and the Food Chain Centre are behind us and have invested in the analytical resource – the PhD students – now we want to reach out and support as many farming businesses as possible.”

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