Farmers ‘need to listen’ to what public is telling them, conference told
PUBLISHED: 11:25 08 February 2019
Gavin King Photography
Farmers have done ‘a terrible job’ of communicating what they do, an East Anglian conference has heard.
Sentry’s regional farming conference at Newmarket provided a packed agricultural audience with much to think about as a diverse set of speakers underlined the need for farmers to ‘tell their story’ to help an industry which is facing up to the challenges posed by Brexit, and the need to survive in a competitive, uncertain and probably much less subsidised world.
Australian farmer and Nuffield scholar Randall Wilksch set the challenging tone for the event, which took place on Wednesday, February 6, as he bemoaned the lack of female farmers, particularly on the combinable crops side.
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“We have done a terrible job of telling our story,” he said, pointing out that primarily the people buying farmers’ food are women. “What we need is more women in our industry telling our story. I’m a father of two boys and two girls and people just assume that my boys will be farmers, and not my girls.”
Mr Wilksch, who chose the subject of women in the industry as the subject of his Nuffield studies, said he found a host of reasons for the imbalance, from the obvious historical one of the eldest son inheriting the farm, to parental bias, identification and the need for ‘partners’ – usually the wife – to work off-farm to support the family income.
But in decision-making terms, women offered a different perspective, he pointed out, such as the ability to be objective over the need for ‘big’ machinery when small would do, versus a male desire to possess it.
Mark Buckingham, corporate engagement lead at Bayer CropScience, considered the future for controversial technologies such as GM and gene editing and the challenges they faced. He pointed out the potential opened up by the UK pursuing its own farm policy separate to that of the European Union after Brexit, but said public acceptance was needed.
“To get there we need public support and public trust,” he said. “The politicians will make decisions about policy based on how they think voters will react.”
He noted the greater public tolerance for pushing the technological boundaries when it came to medicines, rather than food, but suggested that the balance of risk was a factor in this, as ill people would be willing to accept a higher threshold. However, gene editing was the “lower hanging fruit” in terms of prospects for moving technologies forward in the UK, he suggested.
Suffolk business entrepreneur William Kendall, chairman of juice maker Cawston Press and one of the original figures behind brands such as Covent Garden Soups and Green and Black’s organic chocolate, as well as running an organic farm, Maple Farm, at Kelsale, near Saxmundham, and being involved in a conventional one in Bedfordshire, was hard-hitting in his assessment of farmers and their relationship with brands and the public.
Farmers “don’t listen”, he said, but should learn lessons from others, such as organic farmers. “To dismiss it is to fall into the same trap as farmers have been doing for years,” he said, “which is not listening to what their customers want.”
The market was a public which doesn’t trust food, which is faced with food scares, worries about animal welfare and wants to know ‘what’s right and what’s wrong’, and increasingly wants to know about food provenance. “I think a good marketing campaign starts with understanding who is the market,” he said.
Being the ‘farmer next door’ and an ‘artisan producer’ was one way of bridging this gap, he said. “A big market is made up of smaller niches, and we need to identify and address these,” he said. “Trying to address feeding the world makes no sense and will make no money.”
But not all brand are good ones, he said, adding that Red Tractor was “a generic and weak brand”. “It’s not going to add a lot of value,” he said.
He had just become involved in a firm called Farmdrop, which guarantees farmers double the margins they’ll get from supermarkets, he said. “People are finding ways around the monolithic supermarkets,” he said. “People are desperate for good food in the UK and beyond, and good food with a credible story.”
“In my view, the future of farming lies much more in adding value than reducing cost,” he said. “How do you build a brand? You do it by telling true stories about wonderful products.”