The Great Debate: Public goods should be profitable for farmers

Sarah Bell in debate

by Sarah Bell, 2018 OFC Emerging Leader (speech given at the Union Debate).

Public goods is a strand of a farming business, indeed it should contribute to profitability. If we don’t farm to produce market goods, and make a profit, the merit of our industry as anything more than park keepers is questionable. 

As park keepers or food producers we serve society, I don’t believe society wants an industry so reliant on the public purse that we become civil servants. 

The rail operators in the UK are in receipt of £3.2bn per annum of public money – a familiar number.

In parts of this fine country, a timetable only tells you if you will get a refund. In reality the train operating companies find themselves in a position of capped profits, subject to the vagaries of an infrastructure controlled by government bound by a plethora of regulations. 

The gap between aspiration and reality has left the rail operators needed yet universally disliked by the public. A public goods agriculture model could leave us in the same situation - a lesson in being careful what we wish for as an industry! 

I could paint a picture where food production in this country were side lined to such an extent we were only 30 percent self sufficient: dependant on Ireland for beef, Denmark for Pork, USA for soya, New Zealand for lamb, Russia for wheat, and mainland Europe for produce, we could import the world's water! 

There comes a series of weather events - Mother Nature sent three shocks last year, cold, wet and drought, one could even think she was trying to make a political point. Volatility means volatility! 

If food supplies are interrupted time and time again, Anglo Russian or Anglo American relations would become critical to UK food supply.

As a prime minister, whether you take your tea with Trump or Putin, is somewhat irrelevant if its bitter medicine before your daily bread.

A world of public goods would not be a park keeping land of milk and honey, much as government promises less red tape I would remind you that they are people who also promised 350 million a week for the NHS. I have more chance of farming unicorns profitably.

The solutions for UK ag must be a sharp focus on profitably, independence and dynamism. As Guy rightly points out the farmers share of the food pound must increase, however the great and good of Westminster alone cannot be relied up on to make it happen. We as a collective and individuals must have a strategy to increase our share.

Whilst we cannot educate the world one consumer at a time, we can build a brand which speaks to consumers, it is a proven strategy! Whether they be on a large scale delivering year round product, in volume, scotch beef and walkers crisps being good examples. Or on a more specialised basis, meeting specific nutritional, environmental or aspirational consumer needs.

Public goods - a strand of that brand, the beating heart of it being quality, integrity and high standards. Honesty, selling the story of our world class industry.

Guy speaks of a technical revolution, I would take that one step on and cite the digital future, using the data generated to inform us. Profiting, through making our own decisions, investing, generating value and holding it in our businesses. We should be looking where value is added in the supply chain and ensuring we retain our share.  Ultimately delivering a united and well understood story to both the chain and our customer at the shelf edge.

We are accountable to the public for our actions, they will vote with their wallets, therefore we must work to address their insecurities and guilt around food. Telling them a story through our brands. Supported by honestly delivered messages and information in our brand values.

In the split second in which a consumer makes a purchasing decision, our brands must be the weight that stacks their purchasing power in our favour.

All those who seek to demonise agriculture only succeed when we as an industry are faceless and divided. When we own the dialogue we take the ground and we profit. Our future is in the hands of the customer, the conversation with them happens through brand values, taste, health, safety and integrity, the values at the very heart of what we do. 

The Status Quo is gone, our businesses can no longer depend on stability in trade or policy. So we must use everything we have to drive profitability, step forward and support the motion if you are focused, innovative and ambitious for you are the future.

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