Trust Me, I’m a Farmer (or Fisherman)!

Big corporates – supermarkets and fmcg – are courting farmers and fisherfolk again. Is this a Covid-19 thing that induces love for primary food producers? Yes but it’s more than a kneejerk coronavirus response. One outcome of a pandemic or, indeed, even a lesser disaster, is that consumers become more worried about their food – where does it come from?, will it be available? who produced it and how? Gaining this knowledge gives them a comforting feeling of authenticity, quality and product integrity when buying and eating food. Picking up these consumer vibes, supermarkets are swift to show their adulation of and support for their nation’s food producers.

Morrison’s have just announced the opening of new steak and seafood bars “to help struggling British farmers and fishermen” and have offered their 2700 farmer suppliers a 5% discount on grocery shopping. M&S have launched a campaign “to encourage support for British farmers” and have long used farmer images in-store to emphasise farmer partnerships.  Hard discounter Aldi isn’t shy about communicating its British food credentials. There at in Spain, too – Auchan wants to be the farmer’s friend. Across The Atlantic, American grocers are no different – Kroger (No. 2 to Walmart) is promising to source produce locally, as is Wegman’s (the American Waitrose equivalent). Mind you, most supermarkets flirt, or have dalliances with their farmer suppliers of, particularly, fresh meat, fruit & vegetables, and milk. Market research shows consistently that shoppers’ perception of fresh food quality, range and price are key criteria used in choice of store. So, supermarkets want “to own” fresh food and build stories around their fresh food partnerships to differentiate themselves  from competitors.

Partnerships between supermarkets and farmers don’t and never have reflected equality. No surprises here – in the UK, 6 supermarkets account for 75+% of fresh food sales which are supplied by thousands of farmers. Only at the premium end of the market, where the retail pack is adorned with a multitude of adjectives (e.g. farmer name/provenance, specific rare breed), is there a modicum of longer-term commitment if the supplier guarantees exclusivity. Also, supermarkets can be equivocal on farmer partnerships and commitment to British produce, for example:

  • Tesco’s “faux” farm brands for meat and produce don’t please every farmer or food activist;
  •  hard discounter Lidl, with enough cheek for another row of teeth, extolling its Birchwood Farm brand for fresh meat sold in England and Strathvale Farm for Scotland – the nearest either of these farms have been to verdant pasture is the front lawn of the advertising copywriter!;
  • and Sainsbury’s and Asda both besmirched their commitment to British fresh food in April by importing Polish beef during a “beef crisis”. Really, you lot, why would you wish to incur the wrath of the farming fraternity for a tiny amount of mince that wouldn’t satisfy an Essex trencherman? We hope the supermarket meat buyers responsible got a good slap on their wrists from their Seniors.

Telling stories about partnerships in the food chain are not solely the prerogative of supermarkets. “Big Food” fmcg companies are keen to share stories about their direct links with farmer suppliers and, often, it’s in their direct interests to do so to ensure supply but, also, to please a surprising proportion of consumers who want to know the brand story. Why? Because there’s an appetite for knowledge on where the ingredients come from. In turn, this drives the food industry to improve transparency and traceability in the supply chain:

  • small-scale cocoa farmers in West Africa were slowly going bust prompting Mars to launch “Cocoa for Generations” aimed at protecting and rewarding families in cocoa-farming communities whilst ensuring that Mars have a secure future supply of cocoa for  its confectionery;
  • Côte d’Ivoire cocoa farmers are receiving Covid-19 health and safety updates via Cargill’s digital farming tool. Good for the farmers and good for Cargill’s cocoa supply and its corporate image;
  • a “Thank My Farmer” app powered by IBM Blockchain gives consumers the ability to trace their coffee beans with an interactive map. The app has been developed by, inter alia, Jacobs Douwe Egberts, J.M. Smucker, the Columbian Coffee Growers’ Federation and Rabobank;
  • the Italian pasta and biscuit baron, Barilla, celebrates the local grain farmers that produce the wheat and rapeseed used in its products;
  • Warburtons long-standing wheat growing partnerships with UK and Canadian grain farmers is part and parcel of the Warburton bakery story;
  • Weetabix earns plaudits from its customers by sourcing wheat from growers farming within 50 miles radius of the factory in Northamptonshire.

From a farmer perspective, the worm’s turned – supermarkets and food manufacturers want stronger associations with farmers (and fisherfolk – admired hunters of the sea as they are). They want farmers to be team mates. Farmer friendliness and strong rural connections are good for building brand loyalty for “Big Food” companies seeking relevance in a turbulent world .

So, what’s so sexy about farmers and farming? The more urban-based we have become, the less we know about how our food is produced and the more we yearn for the bucolic! Let’s be fair, there’s more romance in growing crops and cute animals than there is in the bits of the food chain that follow on from farming – slaughtering, mincing, grinding, emulsifying, packaging, warehousing, transporting and putting it out on supermarket shelves! And we love underdogs and love to hate bullies – enter stage right the good guys, i.e. farmers and stage left the bad guys, i.e. supermarkets. However, there are complexities – we want farmers to be paid more/assured a fair price, but we don’t want supermarkets to raise prices!

Relative to other food industry participants, farmers are more trusted. They haven’t always been so. Agriculture had a bad patch in the 1970s and BSE wasn’t helpful. Thelwell and Heath captured this in cartoons  during the dark period when urban consumers were falling “out of love with agriculture”.

But, like producing crops, growing and maintaining trust requires education, resources, plans, and assiduous, meticulous cultivation. Trust building is becoming increasingly challenging for farmers as commercial agriculture goes through accelerating change. Consumers’ perceptions of farming (the rural idyll) will lag agricultural development as farmers embrace 21st Century technology – robotics, manipulation of the microbiome and gene editing (e.g. using CRISPR), precision agriculture, etc. – and non-farm food production (e.g. growing meat in a commercial lab) gains traction. Beware, in history, agribusiness and farming advanced whilst the industry kept schtum only to scare the food consumer when advances were revealed after the fact (the launch of Roundup Ready comes to mind).

How can farmers capitalise on being trusted by consumers and viewed as an important partner with grocery supermarkets and food manufacturers? There’s a job to be done (and is in process) at every level of the agriculture and food industry. A co-ordinated strategy embracing major industry players is fundamental and harnessing the passion and enthusiasm of individual producers is its life blood. The likes of LEAF with Open Farm Sunday  and Farmer Time for schools are brilliant examples at the national level and there is lots to learn from, say, Italy with its Agriturismo.

We worry that farmers are, often, characterised as being “oppressed, struggling, needy”. A distinctly more positive perception of farmers would be helpful, viz.:

  • in tune with consumer and citizen values;
  • progressive but sensitive to their key role in safeguarding and improving our countryside heritage (reminding tax payers why investment in public goods-producing ELMS is good for society);
  • modern, efficient food-producing businesses providing food security for the nation.

Remember, when it comes to building trust, connecting with shared values is key. Education and communication of the reality of modern agriculture is complementary but secondary. New wave farming business people (millennials and younger!) are more positive, proactive and adept at using social media to tell their story than their parents who preferred to keep their heads down until there was a problem and, then, whinge to largely unsympathetic politicians.

The above is all fine and dandy but what can an individual farm business do to capitalise on farmers becoming fashionable? If we had answers, we’d have told you long ago! It’s always going to be tough producing something that is close to being identical to the production of thousands of others which is sold into a highly concentrated industry. But, it’s a good start to look over the gate and find out what consumers are wanting to buy, through which channels, and whether the business’s production strengths are consonant with the requirements of our customers. A focus on being the very best lowest cost producer is fundamental for a successful commodity farmer. Yet, a niche market opportunity doesn’t mean an inconsequential one. We’ve been consistent in our blogs to remind businesses that mass markets are splintering. Look out for what your customers and final consumers value and are willing to pay a premium for. We characterise this as searching for the value-adding adjectives (e.g. a real not a fake farm name) that you can add to the commodity nouns (e.g. beef, pork)! Finally, as Spanish farmers reminded their customers and consumers in a recent farmer demonstration – “Si el campo no produce, la ciudad no come”! (If farms don’t produce, the city doesn’t eat). We think that’s well said.  

“Los problemas del campo vienen de lejos y de ministerios que han dado la patada al balón y han seguido para no contrariar a los poderosos”
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Posted in Consumer, Fresh Products, Sustainability
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About the authors
Prof David Hughes: Around the world, David speaks to senior agribusiness and food industry managers about global food industry developments that are and will affect their businesses and industry. Energetic, engaging, humorous and insightful, David gains the very highest evaluations at seminars, conferences and Board level discussions in every continent he visits. Miguel Flavián: works for several Spanish organisations and companies to help them to learn from the developments of the British grocery market and improve their business back home.
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