Retail therapy


One question I’ve been asked from time to time is sensible enough, “How on earth can anybody make a living from food production?”

I suppose the answer is simple, “Send the wife out to work.”

But looking ahead, the world is changing. Whatever you think of Brexit and the EU, we’re leaving. Nobody has a clue what sort of deal we’ll get; nobody really knows how important government considers agriculture. Will farming get traded away to ensure a good deal for our car exporters? Will we be sold down the river to ensure financial services get the deal they want? Certainly UK governments over the last forty years haven’t got a good record of taking a long term view of agriculture.

But I want to look at the scruffy end, what you might call the ‘peasant farmer’ end of the business. The bigger operations have more options, they have economies of scale. If the worst comes to the worst and the whole job goes belly up, then so long as they’re not over-borrowed they can get rid of staff and just ranch it.

But what about the bottom end? Here where you get the small farmers, the smallholders and the family operations; we’ve always had the situation where, to put it bluntly, the farm has made a contribution to the family income but was never the whole story. The show was kept on the road by sons and daughters working off-farm for at least part of the time, the spouse going out to work and everybody pitching in and working far too many hours when they were at home. That was how many got by.

Now these smaller operations may have an advantage that the bigger operations don’t have. They’ve got that web of connections, friends, neighbours, workmates etc.

Whatever happens in 2020, I think one thing we’ll see is volatility. This is because, in reality, we’re seeing it already. The EU has pulled back from trying to provide stability anyway so there is not going to be as big a change as people think. The EU isn’t big enough to dampen down the swings in world grain prices, and over the last couple of years they’ve abandoned attempts to provide stability for dairy producers. I know people who were getting 27p a litre for their milk a couple of years ago, 17p a litre for their milk last year, and hopefully will be back up at 27p a litre at some point this year. To put this in perspective, we got 30p a litre back in 1996 and we got 17p a litre back in the 1970s.

I was once at a meeting where somebody from Defra was saying that Farmers had to be more resilient. I suggested that he spend a year on his 1970 salary and then came back and lecture us on resilience.

But what it means is that when we leave the EU, retail food prices will go up. They’ll have to, the cost of transport, processing, the effect of minimum wage on supermarket employees, the increasing costs incurred when running major advertising campaigns, all will conspire to drive prices up. The farm-gate price of food will be largely irrelevant. When it goes up, it’ll be seized upon as a reason why ‘hard pressed retailers’ have to increase prices. When farm-gate prices fall, retailers will just hold prices and bank the extra margin. I suppose there might be more promotions, but as these are often paid for by the supplier, it’ll not have an impact on the retailer’s annual profits.

But looking at the small producer, how can they cope? If we assume that the price you’ll get for your product is going to be volatile and could well drop a lot, then you really want to stop being just a producer and start being a retailer as well. After all, all you have to compete with is the supermarkets and they’re aiming at keeping their margin.

This is where the small producer’s network of friends, workmates, and neighbours comes in. Start thinking of them as potential customers or potential sales staff and contemplate what you’re growing. The plethora of veg-box schemes shows what is possible, the growth of farmers’ markets shows that there is a demand. Even for livestock producers, there are still enough abattoirs left who’ll slaughter animals for you, and a lot of them will even cut the animal up for you as well. With livestock I’d go down the route of selling the whole lamb, or half a pig, rather than selling individual joints. It does limit your customers to people with freezers, but on the other hand it means you do not have to worry about unpopular cuts.

Not only will you be able to undercut the major retailers, (without having to go to the lengths of mixing horsemeat into the burgers or pumping the chicken full of water to get the weight up,) but you’ll be ‘local.’ People know you.

And what about the consumer, how can they take advantage of it? Here it depends where you live. If you’re in the city centre, or even in the heart of the suburbs you’re going to struggle to find anything locally. But there again I’ve got friends in London who make it their business to drive out every few months to collect meat for the freezer, a few chickens or whatever.

Farmers markets in cities tend to be expensive, if only because of the costs associated with them. Rents are high, there’s a lot of time and travelling involved and all this has to be covered somehow.

If food matters to you and you’re willing to do some research, you’ll probably be surprised at what you find. A friend of mine went into a butcher’s shop in the suburb where he lives and discovered to his shock that the butcher was cheaper than the supermarket my friend normally shopped at, (it’s surprising how often butchers are,) and what is more had better meat. In this case the butcher was buying very carefully from producers he had built up a relationship with over the years.

It’s surprising what can be done.


There again what do I know, for a real expert, ask the dog.

and for Nook, Kobo, Apple and everybody else

As one reviewer commented “This is the third collection of farmer Jim Webster’s anecdotes about his sheep, cattle and dogs. This one had added information on the Lake District’s World Heritage status. This largely depends upon the work of around 200 small family farms. Small may not always be beautiful but it can be jolly important. If you want to know the different skills needed by a sheep dog and a cow dog, or to hear tales of some of the old time travelling sales persons – read on! This is real life, Jim, but not as I know it.”

Mind you, another said, “Like the other two books in this series, Jim Webster gives us a perspective of farm life we may not have appreciated. Some of the facts given will come as a shock to non-farming readers, but they do need to be read. Having said that, there are plenty of humorous anecdotes to make the book an enjoyable read.”

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30 thoughts on “Retail therapy

  1. The Story Reading Ape April 10, 2017 at 7:32 pm Reply

    I hope Farmers will not just ‘survive’, but become the mainstay of these islands again, Jim 🐵

    • jwebster2 April 10, 2017 at 9:04 pm Reply

      Someone asked me if I was worried about leaving the EU. I pointed out to them that I’ve been through four Foot and Mouth outbreaks, BSE, I’ve seen Bovine TB defeated and then government got bored and let it explode again, I’ve survived the retrospective introduction of milk quotas.If we have a decade where government doesn’t try to make us homeless twice, they’re not trying 😉

  2. Kate McClelland April 14, 2017 at 7:55 pm Reply

    Reblogged this on Kate McClelland.

    • jwebster2 April 14, 2017 at 9:18 pm Reply

      not quite ‘shop until you drop’ I’m afraid. But still, hopefully a story with a happy ending

  3. rootsandroutes2012 April 18, 2017 at 3:00 pm Reply

    We may have to wait some time to know whether or not there’ll be a happy ending, Jim. As of this morning, quite a few bets seem to be off

    • jwebster2 April 18, 2017 at 3:47 pm Reply

      I suspect the biggest problem won’t be the election result, it’ll be the damage social media does to society cohesion to be honest

  4. xantilor April 23, 2017 at 8:53 am Reply

    Slightly off-topic – I live in Islington and work in Hoxton, and I can no longer buy kidneys to make stew and steak and kidney pie. Ocado, where I buy my groceries, no longer stocks kidneys, and nor does Waitrose. There aren’t any butchers nearby, except one halal butcher (I checked online first in case kidneys are haram) who didn’t sell them either. It’s strange, because you’d expect to be able to buy most things in central London.

    • jwebster2 April 23, 2017 at 9:03 am Reply

      strange, we can still get them in the North

      • rootsandroutes2012 April 23, 2017 at 2:36 pm

        But they’re often found among the ‘reduced to clear’ items at the end of the day, suggesting that low levels of demand may be found even here.

      • xantilor April 23, 2017 at 2:43 pm

        My daughter won’t eat offal and I don’t think her friends do either, so maybe demand is dying out…

      • jwebster2 April 23, 2017 at 4:48 pm

        It’ll probably disappear into sausage and burger 🙂

      • jwebster2 April 23, 2017 at 4:48 pm

        Yes, kidney does seem to be an acquired taste. I’m happy with it in steak and kidney pie but wouldn’t like a whole one 🙂

      • xantilor April 23, 2017 at 5:15 pm

        Yes, too reminiscent of transplants…

      • jwebster2 April 23, 2017 at 5:47 pm


  5. K. D. Dowdall April 26, 2017 at 10:01 pm Reply

    How cheeky – ‘send the wife out to work’…that is hysterically funny and adorable at the same time.! You do have wonderful sense of humor!! K D

    • rootsandroutes2012 April 27, 2017 at 6:30 am Reply

      Oh, Jim was joking? You should see how hard his wife works… it’s just that no one pays her 😦

      • jwebster2 April 27, 2017 at 4:47 pm

        I once finished an article for one of the farming magazines with the comment, “If you wish to support Tesco or another major retailer, ask your wife to shop there. Don’t ask her to go out to work to support the family so you can continue to sell them your produce at below the cost of production” 😦

      • K. D. Dowdall April 27, 2017 at 6:48 pm

        Oh…I see, then he is fortunate to have such a caring wife, I thought his comment was hysterically funny – I was joking too! K. D.

  6. M T McGuire April 10, 2019 at 9:09 am Reply

    I was thinking about this the other day, Jim. There’s definitely potential for small farms and farmers. I hope that are able to realise it. It worries me that so many of them undergo extreme stress and seem to be afforded little respect by the public at large.

    • jwebster2 April 10, 2019 at 9:33 am Reply

      That’s the problem, anybody with livestock can randomly find their children targeted at school by vegan or animal rights activists, or at the very least children can sit in class and hear the industry their family work in slagged off by teachers 😦

      There are some horror stories out there. Like the teacher who said they wouldn’t wear wool because a sheep had to be killed to produce it

      • M T McGuire April 10, 2019 at 10:02 am

        Don’t. That said I’m a firm believer that if you couldn’t, kill it, gut it and prepare it, you shouldn’t eat it. I also have very little time for people who won’t prepare offal because they think it’s yucky-looking. 🙄

      • jwebster2 April 10, 2019 at 10:04 am

        Mind you, how many of them would dig potatoes or grind corn 🙂

      • M T McGuire April 10, 2019 at 10:06 am

        Back to the knobbly cauliflowers and the food banks again …

      • jwebster2 April 10, 2019 at 11:53 am

        That’s the way things go, round and round 🙂

      • rootsandroutes2012 April 10, 2019 at 10:52 am

        I’ve both dug potatoes and ground corn. Why would it be a problem?

      • jwebster2 April 10, 2019 at 11:54 am

        It’ll have saved you a fortune in gym fees 😉

      • rootsandroutes2012 April 10, 2019 at 11:56 am

        What’s a gym?

      • jwebster2 April 10, 2019 at 12:04 pm

        a training facility for competitors in public game(s). It was also a place for socialising and engaging in intellectual pursuits. The name comes from the Ancient Greek term gymnós meaning “naked”. Only adult males are allowed to use the gymnasia.

      • rootsandroutes2012 April 10, 2019 at 1:31 pm

        …and perhaps, given the derivation, not all of us would wish to do so 🙂

      • jwebster2 April 10, 2019 at 2:30 pm

        The socialising and engaging in intellectual pursuits sounds interesting, like a really good salon bar 🙂

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