One only has to mention the Fair Trade organisation to begin to feel the hackles around you rise, so as I write this piece let me say right from the beginning that I support the aims set out by that organisation, which are stated as ‘the economic and social development of small-scale farmers and workers on plantations’.
However, I was faced with a situation a few weeks ago where one of my farming friends and competitors at Tiverton Pannier Market sadly told me that he wouldn’t be coming to the market anymore because he couldn’t get a fair price for his produce.
This particular farmer works out towards North Devon and has his own small holding producing his own eggs, rare breed pork and lamb. His news made me take a deep breath and think a little more about what actually constitutes ‘fairness’ in our society.
As an aside, when I first got involved with the farming community I made the same mistake that most non farmers make by saying, “With all those subsidies, mate, no wonder you never see a poor farmer…” My friend just looked at me askance and retorted, “Yeah, you never see ‘em ‘cause they’re out all hours bloody working!” Lesson learnt – I’ve never made the same mistake again, as I have too much respect for some of the hardest working men and women in this country. Maybe that’s not true for large farms and estates, I don’t know, but I’m sure it is for small independent farmers.
So with that in mind I felt a real depth of sadness when he told me that he was moving on to try and find some sales. Obviously, I asked him where he might go, the answer was Barnet, North London.
To North London from North Devon, something has to be massively wrong surely! There’s a thousand of his kind out there and we have to ask ourselves the question: “Times are tough, but what are we doing to our farmers and small producers?”
Perhaps you’re thinking it was his fault for being too expensive, but let me assure you that his prices were absolutely at rock bottom, even below cost. As an example, a pack of his home-farmed and cured green back bacon would be under three pounds for six rashers, the same for a pack of twelve lean rashers of streaky. So really, I have to ask, should we consider that to be expensive and what are we comparing it to, the milky wet stuff from the multiples and Buy One Get One Free deals?
Simple economic proposition, if it’s free then it’s not worth paying for.
Value, like beauty is in the eye of the beholder. There was a farmer on the radio last week complaining about the prices that he’s paid by one of the multiples for his chickens. In the long run the supermarket’s operating costs to supply the public feature very highly in this equation and of course what they’re aiming at is the provision of cheap produce to people like you and me. Fair enough, but again we all have a role to play in the final price that the large stores demand of our producers.
Memory serves this chap was claiming he gets around 75p per chicken which seems awful to me, particularly as I pay more than te10n times that for the chicken that I buy from Ark Chicken (yes, really I do). But why am I paying so much, after all chicken is chicken and the lower the cost the better. Well, that is as maybe but it is also an individual purchasing decision based on our personal ethics, a bit like Fair Trade for example.
I pay the right price for the chicken that I buy; it’s slowly matured and not rushed through its life, the breeder is an active member of Slow Food UK and the birds are hung for two days. All of that adds cost and flavour. One of Ark’s large chickens will easily feed five to six people for around twelve pounds. That’s the cost of a Kid’s Happy Meal from You Know Where per person. You could, of course, pay less than that, but why would you want to?
In earlier articles I wrote about how my life in Devon started, basically starting a business from scratch with two young children to support, so please be assured that I know about the cost of feeding a growing family all too well.
As I said at the start of my piece, I support the work that Fair Trade does, but I also support the need to take a broader view of what’s fair and be prepared to go to a local market or farm gate to buy the produce from the people who have worked hard to get it ready for you. We should all take a long, hard look at the economic factors and balance them with the need to support our producers in this country before anymore of them go to the wall and we end up guzzling down cheap produce from overseas.
So the next time you’re pushing your trolley along with a lovely bunch of bananas in it please think about my mate who’s driving to London at two o’clock in the morning to get a little bit of fair trade for himself.
I’m running a discussion group on ‘What is real food’ on The Deli Shack FaceBook page. I would really like to hear your thoughts on this subject. So please take just a moment to share your views, or leave them here on The Devon Week comments section.