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Press Release: Farm to fork - a reality at last?

By: Justin Wright Date: 6 October 2016
Category: Press Release,Food and drink

Walking around the North Norfolk Food Festival last month, I was struck by how many farmers had stands. Perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising, because much of what we eat comes, in one way or another, from the land.

Go back ten years, though, the number of farmers interacting with consumers was probably smaller. ‘Agriculture’ grew the raw materials, and ‘food producers’ made the food, selling it to retailers and the end user. Many were of the view that farmers grew or raised ‘produce’ rather than thinking of it as food.

It is interesting how much that gap has narrowed. Nowadays the agricultural sector, especially smaller farms, are much more engaged with the people who will end up eating what they grow. ‘Farm to Fork’, is no longer just a phrase, it has finally come to mean something.

Of course, some innovative, farmers have been engaging with consumers in small-scale ways for years. Farm shops have sprung up throughout the county, giving foodies the chance to interact directly with those who grow the fruit and vegetables, and raise the pigs and chickens which will end up on their plate.

More recently, however, agriculture has become much more firmly embedded in what one might call the mainstream food sector. In our own region you only have to look at how the Royal Norfolk Show has changed. Not so long ago it was all about the land, the animals and farm machinery. To some degree the focus is shifting, and is now more about the food, demonstrating how farming plays a central role in producing what we eat.

There are two reasons why this has happened. The first is consumer-driven: successive food scandals have made us all think more closely about the provenance of our food. No longer will we accept that what we eat is simply just a factory output, because our trust has been dented. We want to know much more explicitly where our food has come from.

The second factor is economic: with commodity prices remaining stubbornly low, and input costs increasing in the short to medium term, farmers have had to find ways of adding value to what they do. Shipping out primary ingredients in bulk might work for larger concerns, but smaller agricultural businesses have had to find ways of making their land pay – and turning their produce into food that consumers want to buy is the obvious step.

So dairy farmers, instead of selling their milk to wholesalers for less than what it costs to produce it (at the time of writing, the farm-gate milk price is hovering just above 20p/litre), more and more are making their own cheese, adding value to their own primary product. Likewise, tomato farmers are using their produce to make chutney – and so it goes on.

The result is that farmers and foodies are increasingly engaging with each other. That means that the agricultural sector has to learn new skills, especially branding and marketing.

Farmers are also increasingly going to have to be up to speed with food trends, because when you are in the business of providing consumer products, you become much more susceptible to the changes in food fashion.

If it is true that farming has always had to adapt to change, it is also true that the pace of that change is accelerating rapidly. It could be argued that the younger generation of farming families – who have grown up in an always-connected world where the consumer has a much louder voice – recognise that the existing model of farming needs to be more dynamic.

I think this is a good thing. Finally we are properly making the connection between the land and what we eat, instead of erecting an entirely artificial gap between ‘farming’ and ‘food’. Farmers may have to work harder to engage the general public, but the potential reward is a body of consumers who value what they do – and are prepared to pay a fair price for what they produce.
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