We recently commissioned Censuswide UK to carry out a survey on our behalf, to examine changes in consumer attitudes to food supplies, in the wake of the Coronavirus pandemic.
The survey of 1,000 people asked them about the difficulties they have recently encountered in finding milk and dairy products and find out how many have looked outside their usual supermarket for essential grocery items.
Only a few weeks ago, the future role of British livestock farming was very much in question, as critics called for a major reduction in our consumption of meat and dairy products, to combat climate change. At the beginning of March senior advisor to the Treasury, Tim Leunig, declared that the food and farming sector was not ‘critically important’ to the UK economy. Mr Leunig then cited references to countries like Singapore who quite happily import nearly all their food and other goods they need.
Scroll forward three weeks and we suddenly have stark evidence of why the UK really does need its farmers. Panic buying has collapsed the ‘just in time’ food system developed by major retailers and distribution companies, leaving shoppers unable to find staples such as milk, bread, meat and eggs. Farmers have continued to produce the same amount of food on farms as they have done in recent months, but the delivery system has failed anxious consumers. As a result, many have turned to local suppliers for their needs.
It seems that nothing focusses the mind quite like the prospect of hunger. Our survey showed that heightened fears about UK food security have arisen and this subject, which has been largely overlooked by climate change activists, is now very much at the forefront of peoples’ minds. 68% of our survey respondents said Coronavirus has made them realise how important our domestic food security is and 63% say they are now more aware of the need to support British farmers.
Low milk prices and uncertainty about post-Brexit trade deals, have left many dairy farmers worried about the viability of their farm business over the next few years and, unfortunately, their exodus from the industry continues. The Food Standards Agency (FSA) estimates that producer numbers in England and Wales have fallen by 831 in the past twelve months, leaving less than 8,500 still in business. But the in some instances, continued pressure on dairy farm margins has led to a growing number of farmers processing their milk on farm and selling direct to local consumers.
Our farmer members who do bottle their own milk and sell it at the farm gate through vending machines, or deliver it to doorsteps, have reported a huge uplift in demand at this time. Our survey perhaps explains this, with 54% of people saying they were more likely to buy food from local suppliers in response to the shortages caused by Coronavirus.
Gloucestershire Free Range Dairy farmer, Ollie Hobbs, who sells his Wholly Milk from a vending machine says “It is really encouraging to see a shift in mindset of consumers, who are now showing their support towards local producers such as ourselves. We have seen sales from our on-farm milk vending machine double in the last couple of weeks and we are getting great feedback from people discovering our free range milk for the first time. They are delighted to learn that our milk is produced to Pasture Promise standards and the cows are free to graze in fields for a minimum of 180 days a year. People who have struggled to find milk on supermarket shelves are beginning the understand the true value of local producers like us and many of those returning for more say they will continue to buy their milk straight from the farm, when the Coronavirus pandemic is over”.
The Free Range Dairy Network has long supported the establishment of opportunities to buy milk from local farms. Whilst all of our farmers are untied by a commitment to graze their cows for 180 days a year (18 hours a day), under the Pasture Promise logo, we celebrate the rich diversity and terroir of milk from different parts of the country. Those who are now turning to local suppliers for their milk are discovering that not all milk is the same and enjoying great tasting free range milk.
63% of people who have now found local sources of the food they need, say that they will continue to buying from these suppliers after the Coronavirus pandemic has passed, with 75% believing it is vital we build strong, local food networks to safeguard future food supplies. I hope we will emerge from this awful virus as soon as possible and I hope that everyone will take time to reflect on how their lives have been affected. Our health and our food supply are not things we should take for granted. A flourishing network of local food suppliers can make a very positive contribution to both. Please support British farmers and buy local whenever you can.