Buy local, sell local and help keep North East farming alive

Farmer's daughter Julie Porksen looks at the benefits of buying British and role each of us has to play

Julie Pörksen at Gallows Hill Farm near Cambo
Julie Pörksen at Gallows Hill Farm near Cambo

Buying British has been a familiar concept for British consumers for years; many are used to searching the supermarket shelves for packets of British rather than Danish bacon.

Finally the biggest purchaser in the country, the Government, has decided to catch up with the rest of us, having announced last week that it would buy local.

I remember hearing years ago that the British Army ate Uruguayan beef; this rather scandalous purchasing decision meant they weren’t supporting local British beef producers and were using an entirely unnecessary number of food miles.

The Government has a key role to play in all sectors of British industry - to act responsibly in setting an example supporting Britain.

Only large-scale purchasing, like Government contracts, can be used to rapidly shift market norms.

For example, the major Crossrail construction project in London showed that vastly improved standards in road safety for construction vehicles could be implemented in a commercial environment.

The Government should have high standards of fair and local purchasing in all sectors; if its fleet was comprised of British-made, cars we would see a noticeable impact on British jobs in Sunderland.

Government intentions to buy local food are good.

The volumes of food purchased with tax-payers money and consumed in schools, hospitals, and the armed forces, amoung others, represents a significant chunk of the market.

Currently many ‘state-provided’ meals have a reputation for being cheap and poor quality.

Butcher Chris Green of R Green & Son in Longframlington, Northumberland
Butcher Chris Green of R Green & Son in Longframlington, Northumberland
 

Fairness and transparency is important, given the monies involved any opportunities for ‘fixing’ the procurement process or buying influence must be prevented as the smaller local producer will always lose out.

A significant shift in attitude, behaviour and funding will be required for good Government intentions to become a reality in terms of buying local.

Selling local must also be a reality.

I believe anyone with significant market power - be it major banks, landowners or supermarkets - has a responsibility to use that power for the good of current and future generations.

Food sales are a profitable business for supermarkets and will only remain so should British farmers keep producing and the British economy be supported.

Recently EBLEX reported that the share of the retail price received by beef producers has dropped from 58% to 48%, resulting in a drop in sales income for farmers, whose confidence in getting a fair deal from the market must be restored in order that they can invest in their businesses for the future.

The current debate on the marketing push of New Zealand lamb during the British lamb season can only serve to depress the domestic market.

In-season local produce should be promoted – it makes sense for producers, consumers and the environment in the reduced food miles required.

Farmers, the NFU, EBLEX and others have been working for years on developing confidence in British food through the Red Tractor food labelling scheme.

In ever-increasing international food markets, and with food industry failures such as the horse-meat scandal, the need for trusted labelling with reliable sourcing and quality assurance is more important than ever.

The Red Tractor scheme is key to inspiring consumer confidence.

Given their supposed expertise in marketing it is exceptionally disappointing that Sainsbury’s chose to stop using the Red Tractor symbol and be part of the coordinated national effort for quality standards for British food.

Trust in food and the individual producer has been demonstrated though the thriving farmers’ market sector.

Butcher Simon Osborne in the Blagdon Farm Shop
Butcher Simon Osborne in the Blagdon Farm Shop
 

Repeat custom, as with direct sales and box schemes, can only be gained through delivering consistent quality.

Local markets and local butchers play a key role in being able to directly understand and quickly respond to changing customer demands – in direct contrast to the gap in understanding between the consumer and the farmer that is created by supermarkets.

The strength of any industry is in its diversity.

There is a place in British agriculture for everyone, from rare breeds and organic produce through to larger-scale production units.

There is demand for these products, as there is demand for purchasing from a range of retailers from direct sales, farmers markets and butchers through to supermarkets.

Estate owner Viscount Ridley recently attacked support for organic farming in Parliament.

While it is widely understood that organic farming will never produce the volumes required to feed the population, it has become an important market sector for farmers, consumers and the environment; withdrawing support from organic farming would harm the future of British agriculture.

The lack of a local, large-scale quality abattoir is a major weakness in the industry here.

The ability of North East livestock farmers to meet local demand would be improved by being able to access an abattoir in Northumberland.

Common sense would dictate that it is a good thing to slaughter animals near to where they are reared so they can be sold locally rather than to send most animals across the country only for them to be sent back in packets to be put on local supermarket shelves.

We have seen real consumer-led demand for locally produced food in the North East.

You only have to walk down a Northumbrian street and see chalk boards outside pubs and restaurants advertising locally produced Northumbrian Doddington or Morwick ice-cream.

Some menus list the farm where the locally reared lamb or beef was sourced.

People travel far to buy direct from the producer.

Places like Amble have almost reinvented themselves as a food destination, a success that comes down to a few individuals working hard and investing in quality food and drink businesses.

This local growth, replicated across the North East, and combined with the promise of Government action, presents real opportunities for farmers to meet the local demand for quality produce.

Neill Maxwell from Doddington Dairy

Neill Maxwell from Doddington Dairy
Neill Maxwell from Doddington Dairy

“Northumberland is a unique experience for many visitors and at Doddington Dairy we have worked with many visitor attractions so that rather than a generic, mass-market experience, visitors can have Northumbrian ice-cream.

“Using local producers such as Chain Bridge Honey Farm is a win-win for everyone; we can both get quality local ingredients and support our fellow rural businesses.

£Demand from restaurants has grown and mentioning branded Doddington ice-cream on their menu or using our special branded ice-cream desert menu is proving to be a growing market for us.

“We wouldn’t be here without our local custom, buying classics like chocolate and vanilla ice-cream, on a regular basis throughout the year, not just during peak summer season.

“This local market means we can continue to grow our business and employ the 8 full-time and 5 part-time as well as extra seasonal staff who make up our team.”

Jimmy Bell, aka the Lamb Man, of East Wingates Farm

“We started selling lamb direct to the consumer to expand our farm business; now I wouldn’t have it any other way.

“It’s really satisfying knowing that customers come back confident in the knowledge of where their meat comes from and what quality they will get; I take great care to ensure my meat is traceable.

“I have fun meeting the challenges of some of the different requests I get from customers.

“The hard work is worth the effort to run our own business and not rely on the middle man for our prices. Early on I realised that to compete with supermarkets means I need to have competitive prices even though the quality is better. I think there’s going to be a growing market in those who want to buy local produce of all types.”

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