Food system dynamics: Part I — Follow the money . . . but it isn’t here

Last Saturday (31st March), I woke to the sound of Simon Beckett’s voice, he of Beckett’s Farm in Wythall. He was talking on Radio 4’s Farming Today.

I took note, not least because Simon took part in the Elliott Review Birmingham.

Indeed, Nick Booth interviewed him on the matter of the horsemeat scandal — his business benefitted as his customers know he knows where the meat in their farm shop comes from:

The meat he sells doesn’t come from Becketts Farm itself. It comes from farmers he knows, personally.

Now, four years later, here he was on the radio, talking about the 1000 acres of land his family has farmed over the last 80 or so years.

Their whole business used to be as prime producers. They have some animals, but on a petting farm, along with their farm shop with a butchery, a restaurant, cookery school and conference centre.

One of the first things Simon said in his @BBCFarmingToday interview was their mission: to bring both fresh food and farming closer to the people

But that mission isn’t achieved through primary production. Primary production at Becketts Farm, as across the world, barely scrapes a living.

Simon explained that their land is worth about £1,500/acre, so there’s some £15M tied up in that. It’s all arable farming now, “anything that can go up into the mouth of a combine harvester”, currently oil seed rape, wheat, winter barley, beans.

In contrast, the 9-metre butchery in the Becketts Farm Shop makes double the profit of the 1000 acres of primary production.

At our horizon scanning discussion last October, Professor Chris Elliott in his talk mentioned that farmers are an elderly bunch. In the UK, the average age was 58, in China it was 60 and in Japan 65 years old. The reason why is that, you can’t make a living out of primary production. (See p2 of our report Back from the future.)

But if people cannot make a living from primary production, sonner rather than later, we won’t have a food system.

And it’s the economics of primary production that led to Kim Kettle of Long Clawton Dairy at that meeting arguing for support for farmers, just so that they can think for the long term:

And Kim isn’t in primary production. His dairy is a top-notch Stilton producer. So he’s arguing on behalf of the 43 local farmers in Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire who supply Long Clawson Dairy with the milk they need to make their cheeses.

Or take Parveen Mehta of fruit’n’veg wholesaler Minor Weir and Willis. Here he is, also at the same October meeting talking about global competition:

You’d have thought that scarcity would drive prices higher, and lead to higher profits for people like him, like Kim Kettle, like Simon Beckett. But it doesn’t.

Parveen told me that evening that his kind of business operates on a 0% to 2.5% profit margin. That’s ‘scraping’ a living, too; well, 0% isn’t a business at all.

Although these people are nimble, flexible business people, they make a living, and provide employment to others in their locality, there’s not much money at this end of the food supply system.

So where is the money in the food sector? More in:

note: The image at the top of this blogpost is from the Becketts Farm instagram page here and was taken in their cafe.


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