Opinion: Farmers must stay connected with consumers

Fifty years ago the high street was connected to the shopper.  Small, mainly family-owned concerns traded their specialities. Britain was a nation of shopkeepers, so the saying goes – and the supply chain seemed short.

I remember tagging along with my mother to the shops. “Delicious fresh strawberries just in from Kent”, the grocer would ball. Provenance, seasonality and quality summed up in a short sentence.

See also: All the reports from Cereals 2018

By the time the butcher, Mr Simons, had chopped, cut, trimmed and wrapped your meat, you knew a bit about the farmer, the meat, the quality, the price and the gossip. Connectivity.

In the half century that has followed, corner shops have grown into supermarkets and the supply chains have lengthened. Conversations have been lost, in the interest of convenience.

Without conversations over the counter at the point of purchase, the shopper becomes disconnected, not just from the farmer, but from the produce. Appreciation, knowledge, value and the community all became casualties.

But attitudes are changing. There is most definitely a growing interest in being more connected with the farmer.

Earlier this month Britain celebrated Open Farm Sunday (OFS). Orchestrated brilliantly by Leaf (Linking Environment and Farming), this fanfare of farming is hosted by British farmers for the British public.

Since OFS began in 2006, more than 2.2 million people have been to a farm on this special day.

It’s not just the positive, face-to-face interaction that is on the up. In the media – print, social and broadcast – the hits, swipes and air time are all increasing too.

I attended a number of events on OFS, from the micro to the massive; from a smallholding in Hertfordshire to a huge gathering at Edd and Paula Banks’ Manor Farm at Harlton in Cambridgeshire.

The energy was palpable at each event.  Moreover, there was an atmosphere of appreciation, enjoyment and community, which danced over all of them.

However, a week later at Cereals, the UK’s marquee arable event, things were very different. The farmers were conspicuous by their absence. Too many conversations were dour and optimism scarce.

One can’t but feel parallels with the supermarket metaphor. The supply chain is too long. The retailer – or in this case the events management company – is putting too much of a squeeze on the suppliers (the exhibitors), while the consumer (the farmer) feels disconnected as the experience wanes.

History tells us this will not end well. Such is the cycle of marquee farm events. Pitch prices increase, large players withdraw, farmers don’t turn up as there is less to see.

And yet, not far down the A505 at Lannock Manor Farm in Weston, an inspirational and independent farm show and conference is having a polar opposite experience.

Groundswell, the brainchild of the Cherry family, is a fresh and innovative event that is finding numbers and interest booming.

With the strapline ‘by farmers, for farmers’, Groundswell focuses on emerging methods of soil regeneration, reducing inputs and increasing profitability in arable and mixed farming situations.

A short supply chain, with farmers sharing knowledge and happy to pay for it.

It is apparent that, with the right conduit and connectivity, farming is very much in vogue.

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