Opinion: Farm assurance is essential to our brand identity

Spring is in full swing, which means the milking and feeding routine has been vastly shortened and the sheds are now empty of stock.

Turning the dairy herd out to grass is always a welcome sight and change, for both me and the cattle. That said, the dry cold weather has stuck the brakes on grass growth, but knowing only too well how quick the Scottish climate can change, I’ve refrained from performing a full rain dance.

See also: Red Tractor – the pros and cons of farm assurance schemes

In addition to the change in routine work, the longer days and lighter evenings offer a good opportunity to tidy the farm and clean out the sheds – a job we don’t all enjoy, but one that is an essential part of the farming cycle.

While untidiness isn’t an immediate indication of bad management, marketing is focused on initial impressions. Farms are fundamentally food production facilities and, in my opinion, within reasonable expectations should be presentable.

Agriculture as a whole is supported by various standard-setting and inspection bodies, covering all sectors from horticulture and arable to livestock and contracting. They all face the uphill task of balancing the consumer brand they represent, while ensuring that the expectations they set out are workable and achievable by those on the ground.

I often think that as an industry we present the wrong argument when challenging rising standards. We should see them as adding value regardless and look for methods to ensure they are streamlined and efficient.

I certainly agree that the ever-mounting paper requirements and box ticking are tedious, but thankfully the virtual nature of assessments in the past year has turned much of this digital. This is a welcome move and I do hope this part of the process will remain.

While records and paperwork are important, the physical aspect of a farming operation is front and centre. It’s what our consumers see when visiting the countryside and passing by our farms.

The ability to capture and share information has never been easier. Anyone with a mobile phone is now equipped to be an investigative journalist. We as farmers are then only as strong as our weakest link, and a whistleblower highlighting bad practice can easily and detrimentally tar the entire industry with the same brush.

So it is without question that our assurance guidelines should take into consideration the management of our farms, and deliver guidelines that are unambiguous while also considering the impression to our consumers and passing visitors.

One frustration with many assurance schemes isn’t that the standards are difficult to meet, it’s that bad performers are rarely removed from the scheme. I am sure we could all identify a farm we pass or know of that doesn’t meet the expectations of our industry, yet still “proudly” displays an assurance scheme logo.

The question for me isn’t whether we need assurance schemes. We do. It is why businesses and individuals that make no effort to improve continue to be allowed to sell produce under the same brand.

I strongly believe in high, stringent standards in agriculture that are accountable, fair and reasonable. While it’s important that we try to maintain them, adapting as consumer and industry expectations change, we also must appreciate that the brand is only as strong as its worst performer.

We need to walk away from our “polite” British reputation, and our assurance schemes need to get a backbone and start challenging those who don’t uphold the high standards.

See more