Sarah Dawson, NFU horticulture and potato board chairman, and left, Hayley NFU chief horticulture adviser Hayley Campbell-Gibbons

Top grower spells out vision for fair play to Norfolk farmers

Saturday, December 8, 2012
11.10 AM

A world-class horticultural industry could provide more of the nation’s food given the right framework, said growers’ leader Sarah Dawson.

But retailers, processors and the food sector had to recognise that the huge demand for home-grown produce from consumers could not be met unless attitudes to business changed, said the fourth generation south Lincolnshire farmer.

The National Farmers’ Union had launched a vision for the British horticulture and potato sector with a report, Catalyst for Change. Mrs Dawson, who chairs the NFU’s horticulture and potato board, had travelled from her home outside Boston to Stoneleigh, Warwickshire, and then driven to brief about 40 members of Stalham Farmers’ Club.

In a 40-minute address, she outlined how changes must be made to ensure that “we have a secure, profitable, thriving British horticultural and potato industry for the future.”

“We want a horticultural sector which is able to meet the challenges of today and the future and meet the demands of consumers. It means a sector, which is growing, increasing production and growing market share. This is the vision.”

“We want a sector which is obviously profitable with every part of the supply chain making a profit... which is competitive and producing goods to the highest quality. We are a world-class producer on a global platform, make no bones about it. There are member states out there which are extremely envious of our ability to produce food in this country.”

The NFU has challenged the huge regulatory and policy burdens, which impact on the sector’s ability to remain competitive.

“The key issue for the horticultural sector is to have a market place which functions and more importantly is fair,” she said.

Earlier this year, the NFU labelled British tomatoes as an example of an “endangered” crop along cucumbers, spring onions, mushrooms and green beans. “There has been a significant fall in domestic production while at the same time consumers are demanding more of it. Clearly, there is market failure there in terms of some crops we produce in this country.”

There was an alternative, she argued. “There is huge potential for British growers to increase production of horticultural crops and displace large volumes of imported produce in this country and meet this growing demand for high-quality affordable, traceable British food.”

Consumers were at the heart of this strategy. “Consumers are without doubt the most powerful players in our supply chain and we should never under-estimate that; no retailer is big or powerful enough not to act on their desires and concerns.”

She made two key points about the supply chain. “First, farmer and growers in any sector are not afraid of any competitive challenge. We compete naturally every day, whether with our suppliers, our customers or just competing with the elements.

“We accept the reality that we live in a market economy where businesses are driven by the pursuit of profit. That is not a dirty word, it is a reality of business and of a sustainable business.”

While fair and robust commercial negotiation was part and parcel of any trading environment, she rejected negotiations based on arm-twisting, abuse of dominant market power and exploiting dependency. “This in the long-term not only undermines investment by growers but erodes consumer choice,” she argued.

“Secondly, this is not about growers versus retailers or anybody else for that matter. It is not them and us. It is only fair to say that some retailers are putting some efforts in investing in the future of British farming. Our report shows that all too often, this good work is undone by the pursuit of short-term profits.

“It is about bringing an end to damaging activities or risk losing swathes of British horticultural production unless action is taken now. That’s the trend of the data we have in this country on a range of horticultural crops.

“The reality is that they’re endangered in terms of British supply.

“Naturally, it will mean more imported produce, less choice for the consumer and ultimately high food prices.”