A time of opportunity

It is said the next few years will see the biggest period of change in British agriculture for generations, as we adapt to new agricultural support and a heightened focus on the environment, as well as changing consumer perceptions of food and farming. We spoke to Steve McLean, Head of Agriculture and Fisheries Sourcing for M&S Food, to gain some insight on what this means for farmers.

The opportunity for British farmers has probably never been greater, as long as you are prepared to do things differently. That was the bold statement from Steve, as part of a recent webinar he led for the new Cornish Mutual Next Generation Group.

“The fundamentals of food remain fairly consistent,” he explained. “People look to food for enjoyment and fulfilment rather than simply for fuel, and the major drivers of food choice remain quality, price and availability, along with freshness.”

What this means for farmers is you must remain focused on producing quality food efficiently, as this drives market access and farm profitability. But future success won’t just come from producing high-quality farm produce in an economically efficient way.

“We are definitely in a time of significant change,” Steve explained. “The COVID-19 pandemic has brought the future-forward, with more focus on scratch cooking along with consumers suddenly becoming aware of the vulnerability of food supply chains. This means consumers are more interested in food and how and where it is produced.”

And it is not just food provenance concerning the public, there is also a growing concern about climate change, with consumers increasingly looking to large companies to lead action in this area.

“We are entering an era of conscious consumption,” Steve said. “Animal welfare and environmental impact are becoming important factors for consumers when choosing food, with around one third already claiming they always buy products that are sustainable.”

As well as affordable, quality food, the public also wants food that is good for them and the planet, with interest in climate change, biodiversity and animal welfare at the fore.

“Increasingly, customer choice will be driven by transparency, with customers making informed choices based on the sustainability of a product in terms of animal welfare, packaging and the environment,” Steve said.

So what does this mean for you as a farmer?

“There are significant opportunities ahead for farmers that can be efficient but also market-focused,” Steve explained. “Retailers will increasingly look to find points of difference to create consumer interest, so farmers that can tailor their farming practices to deliver what consumers are seeking will be successful. But it will require a different mindset – complying with minimum standards isn’t the answer in future – you need to differentiate to succeed.”

“It is also important not to be daunted by the growing interest in environmental issues,” Steve added. “Remind consumers you already do great stuff in terms of caring for the countryside and seek out opportunities to do more to drive differentiation.”

This may require a new, more market-focused approach to farming. “We need to think differently,” Steve suggested. “Success in the future will be reliant on being meaningful to consumers, engaging them in your product and the way you produce it, to ensure they don’t choose alternatives.”

But this isn’t something to worry about, Steve concluded. “The opportunity for British farmers has probably never been greater, as long as you are prepared to do things differently.”