Sheep Event: Keeping a foot in the EU market

There has never been a greater awareness among sheep farmers about what happens to their lambs beyond the farm gate than there is now. That said I would be deluding myself if I thought sheep farmers knew all they needed to about the destiny of their animals in terms of how the supply chain works, which markets matter and how markets are developed and maintained.

It is fascinating to me that so many sheep farmers now know the daily fluctuations of sterling against the euro almost as well as they know the number of sheep they have in each field. Watching the currency market has become something of a preoccupation – and rightly so. However, as the economic difficulties spread throughout the EU there is almost the same level of uncertainty about the future of the euro as there has been about sterling and as a result there has been a slight but significant strengthening of sterling against the currency upon which so much of farming fortunes ride.

The weakness of sterling has introduced real competition into the marketplace for lamb which has been the main contributing factor in better prices for sheep farmers. However things will change and through currency changes and seasonal trends the amount of export driven buoyancy will alter and the UK retailers will probably be able to reassert themselves as the strongest players in town.

The question for me is having taken advantage of currency to strengthen UK lamb exports into France and other EU countries, what should the industry do now from a position of relative strength to consolidate the progress that has been made in securing increased market share in mainland Europe? All too often when prices are relatively good there is a sense of complacency that sets in. The ability to build from a position of strength is missed and the sheep industry waits for fortunes to diminish and then tries to rebuild out of a position of desperation and weakness.

It is plain to see that through the good work of exporters and the support they have received from the levy boards that progress has been made in establishing the UK lamb brand in mainland Europe. Examples such as the “Agneau Presto” or “Quick Lamb” campaign have moved French consumers into regarding lamb as a quick and easy meal proposition in the same way as happened in the UK a decade ago. This can only be good news.

So what should the industry do now in these relatively good times? Should sheep farmers throughout the UK be banging on the doors of their respective levy bodies asking for increased resources to be put into consolidating these export markets? The levy board response would probably and quite rightly be “OK but what is it you want us to cut in order that we might finance this?”

So instead should the question be “How much extra levy do you need to turn a short-term marketing success story into solid infrastructure for long-term market growth and share?’ As I don’t pay levies, that is not my question to answer. However those of you who do already pay might think about what value you put upon the financial benefits that exports have bought to your business.

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