As eating habits continue to evolve, farmers face enormous challenges in meeting consumer demands, beyond the task of simply producing enough food for a growing population.
“Consumer needs vary, which in its own right presents huge challenges for food producers,” says Michael Winter from the University of Exeter, who will be the keynote speaker at next month’s Nuffield International Triennial Conference at the East Midlands Conference Centre.
“At one end of the spectrum, there are those that tend to have less concern about the source of their food, but want healthy meals ‘on the go’.
“Alternatively, there are individuals who are greatly concerned about the production and ethics behind their food.
“Then there is the apparent increase in food-related allergies, as well as individuals choosing to avoid certain foodstuffs for non-medical reasons.”
Farmers are being called upon to help meet this ever-changing pattern of consumer requirements. But it is hard to know just how far such markets will grow.
Prof Winter recommends farmers who are considering investing in alternative markets (such as gluten-free cereals), or going into direct retailing, or adding value to basic farm commodities, need a good knowledge of marketing.
They should also take expert advice in order to maximise their success.
“Education and training is needed to assist farmers and farm workers in all areas of production, ranging from retailing and marketing, to the science behind increasing yields sustainably,” he says.
“Not everyone needs a degree in agriculture, but training and continued professional development (CDP) are particularly important for farmers to keep up-to-date with rapidly changing technology and practices.
“There are issues, such as soil quality and yield increase, that can only be addressed with intelligent, knowledge-rich farming.”
Prof Winter explains consumer perception is another important aspect of developing the agricultural industry.
“In order to advance production, as an industry, we need the public on our side. Without consumer support, growth will be extremely difficult,” he says.
Farmers, of course, produce food, but also a wide range of other goods that we use every day and play a vital role in caring for the countryside. It’s important for them to proudly demonstrate the critical part they play Caroline Drummond, Linking Farming and Environment
In recent years, farmers have started to respond to consumers’ animal welfare concerns, as demonstrated by the huge increase in free range, including in the dairy sector.
But Prof Winter stresses consumers should be educated on the true realities of farming, including the fact farming practices need to change with the times in order to become more efficient.
Caroline Drummond, chief executive of Linking Farming and Environment (Leaf), agrees educating consumers about the work farmers do in producing high-quality, nutritious food can help farmers seize the opportunities linked to the changing national diet and the needs of today.
“Farmers, of course, produce food, but also a wide range of other goods that we use every day and play a vital role in caring for the countryside.
“It’s important for them to proudly demonstrate the critical part they play,” she says.
About the Nuffield International Triennial Conference
The 2017 Nuffield International Triennial Conference provides a two-week spotlight on British farming, food and rural enterprise.
It runs from 3-15 June and includes a week-long programme of farm visits.
The conference day, titled “Farming Fit for Food”, will be held on 8 June at the East Midlands Conference Centre, Nottingham and will examine how the farming and food industries can meet the demands of future consumers.
For more details go to the Nuffield International Triennial Conference’s website.