Urgent midnight call to action

Pig farmers – never less than vocal in Yorkshire – have bitterly complained about supermarkets not paying a fair price.

But one young and ambitious pig farmer from South Yorkshire believes moaning is not the answer.

Instead, Ben Marsden rang a top supermarket boss in the middle of the night. And the man on the end of the line, Andy Clarke, the chief executive of Asda, was perfectly prepared to listen and to act on what he was hearing.

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“Here on the family farm we have a regular company meeting every two months,” says Ben.

“We went through our cash flow forecasts and with the dip in pig prices since last summer of around 20 per cent, plus the global increase in feed costs, I thought ‘oh dear’.

“There’s only one man I know who can have any impact on pig prices. So I rang Andy. I shoot with him from time to time and he’s a personal friend.

“Every time I give him nothing but grief about supermarkets.

“I think he was in America when I rang him in the middle of the night over there. I just told him that I was in a bit of a mess, that I am 100 per cent about the job, I love farming, it’s me.

“But I’m pulling my hair out and can’t sleep. I need some more money for my pigs. I told him I couldn’t do any more and asked whether he could do anything about it because the way I was looking at our cash flow we stood to lose money.

“Andy just said to leave it to him and he would talk with his buyers to see what they could do.

“A week later all Asda’s contract producers received an increase of what I believe was around eight pence per kilo.

“Andy had no idea the industry was in the state it was.”

The phone call didn’t help Ben himself– at least it hasn’t as yet. He knew that when he made the call. “The increase in price won’t have any benefit to me because I don’t finish pigs and I don’t supply Asda. I might see something in six months if everyone buys British though.”

Ben, of Liley Farm, Mill House Green, near Penistone, has 750 sows breeding about 21,000 piglets a year which are sold on contract at seven kilos upwards.

“We are being as efficient as we possibly can be in everything we can,” he says. “But I won’t cut corners. The day I have to start feeding by-products to my pigs is the day I shall stop farming them. You should either do the job properly or not at all. That’s my feeling.”

Andy Clarke, who took up his role last year, professes a straightforward approach to relationships with suppliers. “We always respond to the needs of the industry,” he says. “That’s part of the way we operate.

“We have very good, ongoing relationships with many farmers and we fully understand the value of sourcing locally. We can only do well as a business if we build, support and grow mutually beneficial relationships with our suppliers.”

And there have been other signs of supermarkets getting closer to farmer suppliers and listening to them. Morrisons has one of the biggest commitments, buying weekly at livestock markets throughout the country via its meat processing company Woodhead Bros. The Co-operative has recently run a TV campaign highlighting locally-sourced food. Labelling in many supermarkets often includes farm names and information about the farm.

It doesn’t yet mean that everything is on an even footing between farmer and supermarket, but it’s not quite the “us and them” that certain people in the industry would have you believe.

Four years ago a group of seven North York Moors sheep farmers began supplying Asda with a branded product. Hill farmers such as Tim Lawn of Littlebeck, near Whitby, had up to that point never had much in the way of dialogue with supermarkets.

“I had always seen them as hard to approach,” says Tim. “But neither farmers nor supermarkets can carry on with the hostility there has been in the past between the two. There needs to be something in the job for everybody. We need a sustainable future and that means making a profit.

“I’m sure that in between the price paid for goods in a supermarket and what it costs us to produce lamb there has got to be a level where there is room for us all to carry on doing what we all do best.

“We have now formed our own farmers co-operative – Seven Hill Farmers Ltd – and last year we supplied 4,500 lambs. This will be our fourth year of supplying Asda and it has proved a very good relationship so far.

“We are presently negotiating to supply their ‘Extra Special’ range this autumn and have regular meetings with Amy Austin their lamb buyer. With the escalating costs of feed, fuel and fertiliser we need every additional price rise we can get at the moment. All of our discussions have been extremely positive.”

It will take more than a few initiatives to overcome the years of farmer frustration brought about by their prices constantly being squeezed. Farmers will still point to the profits made by supermarkets as their businesses struggle. But there are some small signs that the frosty relationship between those in cloth caps and the men in suits is beginning to thaw.