Supporting its valued network of farmers across the UK who supply their core product lines has been fundamental to the Co-op’s approach since the onset of Covid-19. Mollie Leach finds out more.
With Covid-19 presenting a range of unprecedented challenges for farmers across the UK, the major retailers have had to react unequivocally.
The Co-op has endeavoured to support the farming community through its ongoing commitment to champion British produce and fairness within the supply chain.
As the UK headed for lockdown and the closure of the food service sector hit producers particularly hard, the retailer moved to safeguard British farmers by upholding its own-brand ‘100 per cent British’ sourcing commitments on meat.
In 2017, it switched all fresh meat to 100 per cent British and again in 2019 with its frozen range, as Caroline Mason, Co-op’s head of agriculture, explains.
She says: “We have continued to remain committed to supporting British agriculture by upholding this sourcing commitment across all our proteins and added value range, which has been incredibly important during a time which has seen farmers impacted by major supply chain disruption.
“This aims to honour the hard work farmers put into growing and producing high quality meat, which, as recent weeks have reinforced, has a firm place within the domestic market.” Moves to redress the carcase imbalance within the red meat sector also saw the retailer increase its beef volumes by more than 40 per cent in a bid to help farmers sell higher value surplus cuts, which had previously been destined for use in the UK’s restaurants and pubs.
Caroline adds: “The disproportionate amount of mince consumers were buying for batch cooking had a catastrophic impact on the ability to use the full carcase.
Beefing up volumes of steaks, for example, therefore reminded customers they can enjoy these at home too.
“And with the sunshine prompting barbecue season, we have also stepped up our promotional work on pushing higher value cuts through Easter and in to the May Bank Holiday, which saw a lot more steaks go into our BBQ range.
“Deals such as two for £7 or three for £10 across the Co-op’s rump steak range was just one way in which we aimed to support British farmers by tapping into this demand.”
In addition, despite market volatility within the dairy sector, many farmers were forced to pour milk down the drain due to delayed payments and a spring peak in production, but Co-op increased its liquid standard litre by 0.43ppl for May, June and July.
In spite of price drops by major processors, this move saw the Co-op Dairy Group honour its basket-price model, which ensures farmers are financially rewarded for their quality produce by enabling a premium price back to the producer.
And the efforts by the retailer did not go unnoticed.
A team of dairy farmers united to collaborate with Mission 4 Milk in a short video, thanking Co-op for its continued support in stabilising milk prices and the move was testament to the collaborative approach Caroline believes is key to its business approach.
“Our continuous improvement model has been in place for three years, the purpose of which is to ensure we reward farmers but who also use the premium price paid to invest back in to their businesses, in order to improve productivity and efficiency,” she says.
“The ‘thank you’ video was a proud recognition of the work we have done, not just during the pandemic, but over the past nine years to invest, engage and collaborate with our British producers.” Such efforts have been at the heart of the retailer’s continuing commitment to providing farmers with sound business advice, through collaborative monthly committee meetings via Zoom over the last few months.
“These knowledge transfer sessions had previously been held three times a year,” says Caroline.
“We meet up with producers, members of the farming groups and industry experts to develop a programme focused on key topics relevant to each species but, importantly, it also includes market performance updates on how the Co-op is performing as a business.
“Meetings which have taken place during the pandemic, in particular, have formed an integral part of providing our community with advice on business resilience, feed markets, staff management and ways to cope during this difficult time.
“The sessions provide farmers with the right tools to invest back into their farms, so they can develop their businesses in a way which drives their own welfare standards, productivity and financial viability.”
Providing young farmers with the skills they need to thrive has also continued despite adversity through the retailer’s Farming Pioneers young farmer programme.
Designed to teach young farmers wider business skills, from lean management to succession planning, the retailer’s investment in the next farming generation has seen the programme continue via Zoom.
Caroline says: “Aimed at people under 35 from all sectors from dairy to horticulture, the two-and-a-half-year programme takes our next generation farmers through 12 modules and incorporates a combination of business skills and time on-farm to learn about innovative research and development activities.
“It is a fantastic programme and we are proud to invest in the growers and producers of the future, who will drive the industry forward.” By December 2019, the Co-op reached the milestone of 100 young farmers on the Pioneers programme, with two groups having since graduated.
And the desire to continue supporting young farmers going forwards is core to the agricultural plan as it continues to roll out in the future.
“We’ve always been vocal about the need to promote and support British farmers and against the backdrop of Covid-19 and political uncertainty there’s simply never been a more important time to help future proof this industry,” adds Caroline.
“The amount of young agricultural talent out there is absolutely staggering “It’s a real privilege for us to be able to play a part in honing our Farming Pioneers’ skills and giving them genuine, tangible experiences of how retailers interface with farmers.”
William Hewlett is a beef farmer from Rodley, Gloucestershire, and has been supplying the Co-op for the past six years as a member of its Hereford sire scheme.
The business operates across 400 hectares (988 acres) with an overall cattle number of 2,000- head, selling 40 premium, farmassured Hereford cattle into the retailer’s initiative each week.
Having a passion for the native breed, William says the scheme ensures all stock are kept on-farm where they benefit from grass-fed diets, mainly grass silage and maize, which is supplemented by home-grown cereal to bulk up the rations.
William says: “It has been great to see the Co-op champion the high quality of this native breed by offering us a premium price for our produce.
“The pricing is reflected through our commitment to high animal welfare and quality feed.” However, with major supply chain disruption within the red meat sector, the business initially faced setbacks.
Imbalance “There was a knock-on step down when the carcase imbalance hit, as prices began to fall.
Because when trade drops, we buy the cattle and we therefore took a hit on the price of our cattle.” However, with beef prices now beginning to stabilise and recent rainfall restoring grassland for grazing following weeks of dry weather, William says the last few weeks have been particularly positive.
“Going forward, as farmers, we can take positives from this pandemic.
Fundamentally, it has helped the public to be more understanding and to realise they do need British farmers – we cannot solely rely on imports.
“And now, more than ever, domestic food production is of the upmost importance.”
Macclesfield farmer Andy Venables is a fourth generation tenant dairy farmer and has been supplying the Co-op for nearly 10 years.
Over the last 30 years, Andy’s family has grown the farming business to 243 hectares (600 acres), with a herd of 330 Holstein-Friesian cows and 160 youngstock replacement heifers.
But with Covid-19 hitting the dairy sector hard, Andy was thankful Co-op kept its price secure which helped keep the business stable.
The family had to take the necessary actions to help reduce their milk production during the spring flush.
He says: “We were in uncharted territory when the coronavirus pandemic hit and we somehow had to meet the cut in liquid milk production, despite the fact the cows still needed milking.
“So we adapted a series of measures to protect the business This included drying some cows off early, we also reduced rations in the parlour and kept a bit tighter on the grazing blocks.” The team’s efforts resulted in a 5 per cent drop in their milk production, which he says was a ‘small price to pay’ for the dairy farmers who had previously supplied the food-service sector.
In spite of the challenges the sector has faced over the past few months, which saw many farmers struggling with grassland due to dry weather, Andy says he remains cautiously optimistic about the future.
He says: “I would like to say that as a dairy sector, we have been through the worse and, hopefully, the markets will start to open up.
“People cooking and baking also seems to be holding up the cream and butter prices.
And with foodservices slowly reopening their doors, the bulk of liquid milk will be able to find a home and things will improve.”