Gill asked if I could write a post on the economic side of farming. Wow what a subject and one I don’t feel I’m fully qualified to write on. But I can maybe give you slightly more understanding.
Farming is in a state of change and flux. It could be said that’s always so, but never more than at this present moment. Farming will survive for as long as we need food, it’s knowing what form it will eventually take. Pressures come from society’s changing needs and perceptions, new laws, free trade and the influences of climate change and depleting energy sources. It’s certainly a tough and unknown path to be trod but I believe there are opportunities for those that can see them, though I also think the casualties will be great.
This year has seen grain prices soar because of world droughts and the use of grain for bio-fuel. Dairy farmers are feeling happy for the first time for ages due to the increase in the price of milk. But beef and lamb prices are poor and with the exorbitant cost for hard feed and straw it looks as if many beef and sheep farmers could go out of business.
Yes, supermarkets are businesses out to make a profit in a highly competitive environment and so do squeeze producers and sometimes drop them with no warning. But they are listening better to what their customers want and realise the need for British farmers to stay in business.
Here is a good supermarket story. We have a Waitrose in Okehampton and several local commercial sheep producers signed up to the store’s local lamb producers’ contract with a fixed lamb price, and they are very happy as although market prices for lamb have plummeted they continue to be paid at a much higher rate.
But I have never myself sold to supermarkets. I guess I have always been entrepreneurial and have tried to add value by selling direct to customers. When I was dairying I had my own milk round selling milk, cream and cheese. I did supply the Milk Marketing Board (as it was then) with a percentage of my milk but the rest I used. The lamb I produced went to local butchers.
At Locks Park we realised very early on that to make the farm pay we would have to do the same. We also signed up to green farming schemes which initially made the difference between profit and loss. In the mid-nineties I began to develop a direct selling business which grew successfully until I decided to sell it a couple of years ago. Interestingly, when I sold the meat direct to customers it looked as if the money made for each individual animal was double that made compared to selling to butchers, though after removing costs and overheads there was very little difference in profit but a lot less work!
So what do I do now? I have been followed by some of my faithful and loyal customers who missed the taste and quality of my beef and lamb, and the knowledge of provenance, welfare, farm and farmer. I have picked up some new enthusiastic customers from working in Exeter. Still having the skeleton of the production side of my old business in place it is easy enough for me to continue to supply them with the best meat available! Surplus steers and lambs I sell directly to other small direct selling farm businesses. Breeding stock are currently attracting a good price.
But the bottom line is, that the 100 or so acres we farm is not nearly enough to support a family. That’s why small family farms across the country have had to diversity into activities like B&B, stables and workshops to survive. It’s seems somehow vaguely immoral that 100 acres of good land would support a village over much of the world but here can’t support a single person.
This is a very generalised overview. If anyone would like me to be more specific on certain topics just let me know.