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Thursday, 24 April 2014

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Thank you for supporting Fairtrade, now can we get behind Cumbria?

They provide the food that we all need to live, yet their own survival is always at risk. They are at the mercy of big business. If prices drop for their products, they lose money and may find themselves pushed into poverty.

Fairtrade photo
Dairy farmer Robert Craig with Stephen Best, a banana farmer from St Lucia

This is the ever-present danger faced by farmers and growers in some of the poorest parts of the world.

And also down the road.

Over the past two weeks, during Fairtrade Fortnight, we have been asked to think about the people in developing countries who produce our tea, coffee and cocoa, and help them by opting for Fairtrade produce.

It’s a well-supported cause in Cumbria. The county as a whole, and many of its towns, villages and organisations, have been awarded Fairtrade status for their commitment to the campaign.

But activists point out that the people in Cumbria who produce our milk, cheese, lamb, pork and beef can face the same pressures as those producers in Africa, India and south America – and for almost identical reasons.

Like Third World producers, Cumbrian growers can have difficulty getting their produce to market. And if the prices for their commodities drop, they could find themselves losing heavily.

It’s a point that leading Fairtrade campaigner Joe Human has long been making. Mr Human, from Keswick, serves on the Fairtrade Foundation’s national board and helps run Cumbria Fair Trade Network, and in November he organised a conference at Rheged in Penrith to look at the similarities between the situation for growers in developing countries and growers here – and what they could learn from each other.

He offers an example. “Look at the parallels between milk and bananas. Both are subject to supermarket price wars, both have a comparatively short shelf life an both are used as ‘loss leaders’ – sold cheaply to lure people into the shops.

“And both products are treated in the same way by the supermarkets. A Caribbean banana grower and a Cumbrian milk farmer face exactly the same problems when supermarkets drive prices down to compete with one another.

“Producers everywhere, whether they are in developing countries or developed countries, face similar difficulties with the way that a few very powerful organisations – coffee buyers, grain traders or supermarkets – work against the interests of small or marginal farmers.

“For instance they will operate without contracts. They may make a verbal agreement, saying: ‘We’ll buy from you,’ and then cancel it at the last minute.”

Mr Human suggests a “fair and local” approach – choosing Fairtrade for the products we don’t grow in Cumbria, such as tea, coffee and cocoa, and choosing local produce for those that can be produced here.

Dairy farmer Robert Craig has noticed some support for this approach. “There is a percentage of consumers who actively seek local produce, and they are the same people who buy Fairtrade. Organic produce has suffered a bit in the recession, but Fairtrade seems very resilient.”

He also notes the similarities between Cumbria and the Caribbean. His farms, at Ainstable and Langwathby, produce milk for cheese manufacturers in Lockerbie and Aspatria and last year he hosted Stephen Best, a banana grower from a Fairtrade co-operative in the Windward Islands, when he visited the conference in Rheged.

“We are both affected by how the supermarkets play with prices and can pretty much do whatever they like.

“The only way for the banana growers is to go down the Fairtrade route, which means they join a co-operative. Cumbrian farmers can only have strength in numbers with a co-operative.”

Other problems, such as a shortage of labour, are shared by both. “There’s no great queue of people waiting to join agriculture, and they have the problem where people move away for their education and never come back.

“We see the same in our rural areas. Farmers’ sons and daughters go away for university and don’t come back because they don’t see farming as a valuable occupation.”

If supermarkets won’t support local producers then farmers’ markets might, though Mr Craig admits that they will only be a sideline for most farmers.

Livestock farmer Peter Lightfoot feels hotels and restaurants should buy locally-reared beef and lamb – and use it as a selling point to visitors who want to sample local produce when in a new place.

“I’m sure the tourists will prefer it if it’s local,” he says.

Mr Lightfoot has sheep and a smaller herd of cattle on Gillside Farm near Glenridding and has also seen support among many people for local produce – but now finds it slipping back with the state of the economy.

“We were expecting prices to go up, but with the recession there’s less money around and people are looking to live as cheaply as possible.

“Cranston’s buy our lambs and a butcher in Shap buys them, but I think things are going to be tight. And our overheads are going up all the time – fuel, food and fertiliser.”

Spending money on locally- produced goods keeps money within Cumbria, of course. And there is also a compelling environmental reason for buying goods produced close to home. Transporting them from overseas creates pollution in the form of “food miles” – the fuel burned in sending them across the world.

But in a recession these factors aren’t uppermost in the minds of all shoppers. If New Zealand lamb or Danish bacon are cheaper than the Cumbrian varieties, then the economic consideration will overrule the environmental one – particular in households struggling to save money.

Cranston’s butchers has branches in Carlisle, Penrith and Brampton, and its managing director Philip Cranston acknowledges this fact.

Like most of the independents, it specialises in local meat, and in recent years that has proved good for business. Buying locally- sourced produce has become more fashionable – and all Cranston’s beef, lamb and pork is sourced from Cumbria.

But the recession and ever-tightening budgets could undermine that trend, according to Mr Cranston.

“Our stocking decisions are based on three factors: value, quality and locality,” he explains.

“People like to know where their food comes from and feel confident about what they put on their plate. And buying locally is also more environmentally sustainable, with fewer food miles involved. And it can’t just be local – it’s got to be good quality as well.

“But in this economic climate, people are putting different weight on these three factors. Value has gone up and locality has slipped a bit.

“All three factors still count, but it’s more value-driven than locality-driven at the moment.”

Pioneer Foods is another local supplier. It has two shops in Carlisle and one in High Harrington, near Workington, and also delivers food across the north of England and into southern Scotland.

Like Cranston’s it has a firm commitment to local produce, says its managing director Graham Jenkins, and that is an attraction for many customers.

“We buy a huge amount of our produce in Cumbria – all our meat is bought directly from farmers or at the local auctions. There are some very good producers in this area.”

He believes that the buying power of the supermarkets is what causes most problems for local growers.

“Small and medium-sized companies like us are more likely to support the local economy, but there is a small number of very big retailers who have a lot of power in their hands, in a sense too much power. They can deny local producers a route to market.

“When raspberries from eastern Europe are cheaper than raspberries from Scotland, there’s something wrong there.”

Are there other ways local producers can sell their produce? Mawson’s farm in Seascale produces milk, butter, ice cream and other dairy products and just over three years ago opened the Bailey Ground Hotel, using the farm to supply its kitchens.

“There are zero food miles involved,” boasts Richard Mawson. “You can see the fields where the food is produced through the hotel windows.”

However other markets are proving harder to find. “We supply milk to Sellafield, but from April 1 it is going to enter a national contract with Dairy Crest, so we will lose 15 per cent of our business.

“We would love to supply milk to Tesco in Whitehaven, but when the supermarkets say ‘regional’ milk they mean the north of England. A little supplier like us has got no chance with them.”

So Mawson’s milk is either sold through corner shops or via doorstep deliveries – but rising fuel costs are putting pressure on those markets too.

“The price of milk has gone up by 1p per litre, but our costs have gone up by 8p or 9p per litre, with the price of diesel and everything that’s imported, such as plastic bottles.”

And even if supermarkets did buy their milk more locally, Mr Mawson doubts whether that would improve the fortunes for local producers. “It might help if they give us a fair price for it – but I don’t think they would.”

Yet Mr Craig believes there are grounds for optimism. If Fairtrade is still growing then demand for local food will grow with that. And he predicts: “There is going to be huge population growth so there will be massive demand for food in our lifetime.

“We need more new entrants into farming and more new thinking, because we’ve got a lot of food to produce.”

Mr Mawson agrees and says local producers matter more than we realise. In April 2010 ash from the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland grounded planes and closed airports across north-west Europe. Unforeseen circumstances like that remind us of the importance of home-grown food.

“If as a nation we can’t produce enough to feed ourselves then we are in trouble,” he says. “It’s really important that we support the producers we’ve got, so they are there when we need them.

“Once we’ve lost them we’ve lost them for good.”

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