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Do you see your farming neighbour as a competitor or a collaborator?

Produce & Provide promotes farmers who sell food direct from their farms, because we believe creating a direct connection between producers and consumers is key to helping people make better food choices and winning farmers the recognition and reward they deserve. But as more producers, who are short-changed by the modern-day grocery supply chain seek opportunities to cut out the middleman and add value, is there a risk they will just end up fighting one another for customers and struggle to build a big enough market?

For many years farmers have been encouraged to diversify their farm businesses and explore new opportunities to add value or create additional incomes streams. This might involve processing and selling food direct from the farm, setting up a campsite, farmhouse B&B, horse livery facilities, or providing leisure pursuits on the farm. All of which require money, time and new skills, to establish, manage and grow.

Since setting up Produce & Provide I have come across some wonderful food producers who have created captivating brands built around their farms and the food they offer. Through this they have built a loyal following of food lovers, who truly value the food they produce and provide. The qualities and values they promote create a USP (unique selling point) that sets their meat, milk, eggs, or vegetables apart from others, to attract customers.

Marketing is an art and it is one that a number of farmers have developed, by listening to what people want and observing how others have succeeded. However, as more seek to develop their own brands and market food direct to local communities, competition between them inevitably builds.

Competition is widely regarded as healthy, as it encourages producers to constantly find ways to ensure their brand is attractive to customers and drives innovation. But the downside is competition can drive down prices for producers. Those attempting to sell high quality food within a small radius of the farm, can soon find themselves competing against one another for a slice of a small pie.

Ultimately competition is almost impossible to avoid. If you develop a recipe for success, others will want to follow you and enjoy the same benefits; it’s human nature. Some dairy farmers have recently reported falling sales at milk vending machines, as the number of operators grows and old shopping habits return post Covid-19. It might be that new variants of the virus will soon encourage, or force us, to avoid supermarkets and large gatherings and fuel another surge in demand for local food. But farmers cannot build profitable and sustainable businesses on ad hoc viruses, logistical breakdowns and natural disasters.

As already outlined, creating a USP for your business and brand is key to differentiating your offer from that of others in the market. But, using my example of dairy farms and milk vending machines, in the long run you will need to offer more than a dazzling array of milkshake syrups to add lasting value to your business.

I believe one of the biggest challenges (and opportunities) for British farmers lies in building awareness of the true value of local food direct from producers. It’s not an entirely new concept; farm shops have existed for years and the first farmers market in the UK was held in Bath, in September 1997. But, unfortunately, many still regard high quality, local food as expensive and inaccessible.

In a fast-paced, grab and go world, where millions eat on the move and habitually put convenience and price before quality, provenance and sustainability, there are big challenges to conveying quick and simple messages about the latter.

There are some encouraging signs however. The Covid-19 pandemic and its associated stretches of lockdown, has made people seek out alternative food sources to the major supermarkets, leading them to discover local producers. According to a report by the Food Standards Agency (FSA), published in March 2021, the pandemic saw radical shifts in where we buy food, with more people shopping locally and in smaller shops than they did before. Many experienced shortages due to early stockpiling, raising national as well as individual questions about how much we can trust our food supply chains.

A poll conducted by the FSA found that 28% of people bought more locally produced food during lockdown. Their report goes on to say that this could be a “durable change”, supported by the finding that of those who changed their behaviour to buy more locally produced food, 81% expect this change to continue and 71% want this change to continue.

Other data suggests we still have a long way to go before people desert the supermarket aisles though. In 2021 Statista's Global Consumer Survey found that 87 percent of UK consumers regularly shopped for food and everyday products from supermarkets. They estimate that the UK grocery retail market value was £205 billion in 2020, with supermarkets as the “dominant store format”.

So, can we make buying direct from local farmers the dominant format? In reality, it is unlikely we will steal the crown of the modern-day retail giants. If we are to see British farmers take a significant proportion of the grocery spend away from supermarkets, it is vital farmers are the ones who hold the relationship with the consumer.

Loyalty is key; farmers need regular returning customers and advocates to grow their business, rather than people just coming to them for the occasional treat. Ultimately, they need to be connected to far more consumers than just their loyal neighbours and friends. To achieve this we need to make high quality food sold direct from farms ‘mainstream’, rather niche. We need to scale up that consumer relationship to a whole new level and, in my opinion, the best way we can do that is through producer collaboration.

Those with established farm shops, milk vending machines, meat and veg box schemes already in place, may regard the producer a few miles down the road as their competitor, because they set up similar ventures. In the short term this might be true. However, our real competitors are those who currently pull the strings in the grocery supply chain. If we can all work together to promote the value of our farms and fields, our animals and crops and the way we manage them and utilise precious natural resources, we can take back ownership of the food that farmers produce and tell our own story. But we must ensure a joined up approach if we are to achieve the desired outcomes.

As I mentioned at the start of this blog, there are hundreds (maybe thousands?) of British farmers already doing a great job promoting their own farms and the food they supply and they have established very successful businesses. Many are finding new ways to reach more customers further afield, telling their story through social media, selling online and delivering by via growing network of express courier services.

Produce & Provide can help new and existing ventures. But with your support, we can do far more than simply promote individual farms and the food they sell. Whilst I still see this as an important role, I see our real strength in unifying producers to collaborate in promoting the concept and benefits of buying food straight from the farm.

As more and more farmers offer people the chance to cut out the middleman and buy direct from them awareness will grow, as will availability and accessibility, giving more people the chance to buy food this way. Those people share news of their new-found food sources, the quality of the products they purchase, the places they have visited and the farmers they have met. This is turn will create wider media interest, to enable us to grow the pie and allow more farmers to enjoy a slice.

Beyond this we will need to look at how farmers can work together to meet growing demand on the ground. This might be in the form of joint processing ventures, setting up food hubs and transport for distribution, for example. There is always a bit of juggling act in balancing the need to grow demand and having the means to meet that demand when it comes, but producers should not be afraid of seizing the initiative for the future prosperity of all. Think about how you might work with your neighbour rather than compete against them. There is room for all if we engage more people in what we do and what we offer.

We are planning some events in early 2022 that will give like-minded farmers a chance to meet up and talk about some of the things in this blog and learn from others who have already taken the journey. At the same time, we will invite the representatives to from the media to come along and learn more about how a food system that puts farmers and consumers first can deliver what people and planet need.

In the meantime please register with us via the website and keep an eye on our social media for news of our plans and, if you have any comments on this post, please get in touch

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