NFU conference row

Tensions ran high at the NFU livestock conference in Leamington Spa last week as farmers demanded answers and action on farmgate prices.

The conference was organised by the NFU to give farmers some confidence about the future of the marketplace in the wake of the unprecedented difficulties faced after a summer of disease and rising feed prices.

Speakers Richard Cracknell, managing director of Anglo Beef Processors (ABP) and Wynn Williams, procurement manager for Dunbia, were asked to talk about the opportunities and threats in the marketplace, but were met with a barrage of angry questions from farmers fed up with unsustainably low prices.

One farmer said: "We are consistently being paid below the price of production. Sheep across Europe are selling for more than we are getting in the UK and we want to know why.

"At the end of the day, I could just stop producing sheep and live off my single farm payment. What would you do then?

"Farmers want a base price, not a forward contract. If we sign up for a forward contract, you'll take us to the cleaners. Why can't you offer a base price and raise it 5% each year with inflation?"

Williams replied that the marketplace made it difficult for Dunbia to guarantee a base price and that forward contracts were the best solution currently available.

"I appreciate that if we don't get money back to you, we will not have any product in a few months but we can't be held accountable for the whole industry - we are a business and we have customers," he said.

Both Williams and Cracknell stressed that product development and carcase balance were vital to pass profit down the chain and insisted that they, too, were suffering under foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) and bluetongue restrictions.

When asked if he was disappointed that, despite the work done by ABP in the UK, two of his main customers, Asda and Sainsbury's, imported a disproportionate amount of beef from Ireland, Cracknell replied: "Imports are essential to maintain demand. It is not an option of having British or Irish beef, it is having beef or no beef.

"It is very easy for us to think the devil in all of this is the supermarkets. The problem for us is not what we do sell to the supermarkets but what we don't sell to the supermarkets.

"Carcase balance is critical and we can improve returns through it. We would like to get more money from the supermarkets and I am sure they would like to get more money from the consumers but at the end of the day we are living in the real world."

As the conference adjourned for a break, one farmer said to Cracknell: "You just admitted what we knew all along; you are just trying to get our product for the lowest price you can."

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