We set out in 2002 to produce a high-quality consumer magazine to promote ‘the best food produced by British farmers’. It seemed like a simple thing to do and exactly what the industry needed. Following the foot-and-mouth disaster, there was low morale among farmers. The looming supermarket price war between Tesco and Asda threatened to put more family farmers out of business and drive food production overseas, unless the benefits of home-produced food could be communicated to the consumer. A consumer magazine would provide the perfect opportunity to do this. It would also provide a shop window for smaller and specialty farm producers, enabling them to cost-effectively reach large numbers of urban consumers through small-space advertising and highlight the benefits of eating local produce, as well as fresh, seasonal fruit and vegetables. We planned to produce a 64-page ‘best of british’ magazine distributed to one million housewives each quarter, and part-funded by third-party advertising revenue. The Government’s own Curry Commission recognised that ‘reconnection’ between farmers and consumers was a top priority. A magazine to help farmers to market themselves and their produce directly to consumers was therefore spot-on. Or so we thought.We developed full business proposals and creative work in conjunction with leading customer publishing agencies. We then took this project to the industry bodies for their endorsement. The NFU HQ would not support the project. Unperturbed and with letters of support from the Tenant Farmers Association, National Beef Association, National Sheep Association, Country Land and Business Association, FARM, The National Trust and others, we started to look for project sponsors. Cornwall Taste of the West, the Meat and Livestock Commission and Yeo Valley liked the look of the project and agreed to sponsor it.
But Sir Donald Curry, the man heading the Curry Commission, with £500 million to help farmers ‘reconnect’ with consumers, would not help. The Curry Commission bodies, English Farming and Food Partnerships (EFFP), The Food Chain Centre (FCC), run by the Institutute of Grocery Distribution (IGD), and Food from Britain (FFB) would not help. The banks and supermarkets, food industry and levy bodies – Milk Development Council (MDC), Home Grown Cereals Authority (HGCA) and British Potato Council (BPC) – and Government-funded development agencies (e.g. SWRDA) wouldn’t help. So, we submitted a Rural Enterprise Scheme grant application to DEFRA. This was rejected. We took the project to Lord Whitty’s office and again it was rejected. This was beginning to annoy us. Time to step back and look at the problem. We talked to other people who were trying to help the farming industry with consumer-focused marketing solutions. The National Association of Farmer’s Markets could not get any funding. British Food Fortnight faced similar problems. Devon Food Links was being squeezed out of existence; it had managed to develop its own local food magazine (similar to our proposals) but the SWRDA, with millions of pounds, would not help them either. SW Food & Drink failed to put Devon Food Links in touch with us. SW Food & Drink was however, funding lots of supermarket own-label projects, but nothing to help farmers develop their own brands and own marketing activity to the consumer. Consumer-facing activity was not part of their remit. Or so they told us. Why was this? The multinational supermarkets and large food manufacturers do not necessarily want consumers to ‘reconnect’ with farmers. They don’t necessarily want the consumer to know how their food is produced or where it has come from. These players want to be able to source anonymous food from anywhere in the world for the lowest possible farmgate price and any ‘farmer-consumer reconnection’ might restrict their ability to do this. If the consumer was educated about where their food had come from or how it was produced, they might start shopping at traditional butchers, greengrocers, local shops and farm shops again. So, the £500 million of taxpayers’ money to help farmers to reconnect with consumers was diverted to other areas.
In general, only food processors (e.g. Heinz, Unilever) and supermarkets (e.g. Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury’s) conduct their own marketing activity to the consumer. Farmers – the producers of fresh, seasonal and local produce – are prevented from conducting their own marketing activity to the consumer. This task is handled by the Government run marketing agencies known as levy bodies (e.g. MLC, HGCA, MLC, BPC). As a result, consumers have not been educated about how their food is produced or where it has come from for the last 50 years. This partly explains the obesity problem. Two generations have grown up shopping in supermarkets buying processed ready-made meals and know little about how their food has been produced. If we are to protect our valuable food and farming heritage, the UK consumer needs to be educated about how their food is produced and where it has come from. We need to start marketing our food and farming heroes.This is something, incidentally, that the French understand.