I had to go to London yesterday, not something I do often thank goodness, big cities are far too busy for my tastes. I much prefer to go on long journeys by train if I can and with the improvements they’ve made to the rail network it’s quicker than a car as well as greener for me to get to London by rail. It’s also cheaper, but that does take some planning ahead and creativity when buying the tickets. Quite mad that 2 singles are cheaper than a return, but there you go.
Anyway, what I love about the train is that you have time to do something rather than just scream at the traffic. I got to read a book on the way down but on the way back I struck up a conversation with a small tenant farmer, which was really interesting.
He grows vegetables on a large scale, but he’s not sure for how much longer. At the moment he’s a conventional grower, which means he uses artificial fertilisers to feed his crops, herbicides to clear weeds and pesticides to control pests.
His market is effectively the supermarkets and they, as we all know, pay as a little for their produce as they can. It annoys me a bit that many people are happy to bash the supermarkets about the way they treat the farmers but they’re quick to complain about paying more for the food they buy. Anyway, that’s the way the world is and it doesn’t look like it’s going to change soon.
His problem isn’t so much what they’ll pay for crops they accept as the crops they won’t. Everything has to meet strict quality criteria. Size has to be within defined limits, no blemishes, correct shape etc. So if his carrot is too big or too small, it’s rejected. If it has forked, rejected. Been nibbled by a pest or greened a bit at the top, rejected. Even the colour has to match a shade chart!
Apparently huge amounts of crops nationally are delivered to the supermarkets who basically send them back, a bit like a show bench “Not as Schedule”. I asked if there was a secondary market, perhaps to makers of ready meals or something who could process this but apparently he hadn’t access to that.
He’d actually looked at this some time back but there’s quite a long conversion process. You have an interim period where you can’t use conventional methods but aren’t allowed to describe your produce as organic and sell at a premium. He’d done his figures and didn’t think he could afford to do it.
On top of that, the premium for organic foods only reflects the extra costs the farmers have to grow that way. The ones actually making money at it, and we all deserve to be paid for our labours, are the ones who have cut out the supermarkets for direct selling via box schemes and to restaurants etc. That’s another cost and a gamble, someone who’s a great grower might not have the sales and business skills to make that work.
Of course, we’re now in a recession and people are less happy to spend on organic foods. All those lofty principles vanishing when money gets tight. Banks are not lending money affordably to small businesses, especially when they see high risks, so the conversion to organic is completely out of the question.
So what’s going to happen? According to the National Farmers’ Union we’re going to see food crop production fall. They think that these restrictions could lead to reductions in crop yields and quality and a rise in food prices for household staples like potatoes and broccoli. The £6.00 bag of potatoes could become a reality.
I wondered if it would just mean we imported more from cheaper areas outside of the EU but apparently not. If a crop contains detectable residues of a chemical banned in the EU then it should not be sold here.
Now I’m not saying it’s a bad thing to ban these chemicals. After all, we should be able to eat vegetables from the shop without fear that they’re poisoned and may give us cancer or something. On the other hand, if they don’t do something we’re going to pay a lot more for our food in the future and yet more farmers will be leaving the industry.
I asked my companion on the train what he thought was going to happen to him and his farm. His answer was quite simple. He didn’t know. I’m just glad I grow my own.