Fruit and veg farming 'is broken' and family businesses will close without supermarket support, farmers say

More than 112,000 people have signed Riverford Organic's petition for supermarkets to better support British farmers.
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“I’m not happy at all,” cucumber grower Tony Montalbano tells me from his bustling office. Out of the blue, he says, a wholesaler told him they didn’t want all of his harvest. 

“It was too late,” Tony says, “I was a bit gobsmacked … I’ve never been told that before. It is really frustrating because I’m trying to recover what I’ve lost from last season.” The year before fruit and vegetable growers, like Tony, were forced to scale down their production due to sky-high energy bills. 

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His family have been growing cucumbers in Roydon, Essex, for 60 years, but Tony says he’s worried about the future of the business. “Next year I’m putting it on contract,” he says, “control the pricing - is it fair we’re getting this minimum wage from the supermarkets?”

Tony’s not the only one. According to research from veg box supplier Riverford Organic, 49% of British fruit and vegetable farmers believe they will go out of business in the next 12 months if things do not change. More than two-thirds of those surveyed by Riverford said that tougher regulations are required to address the imbalance of power between farmers and buyers, including wholesalers and supermarkets.

Riverford founder Guy Singh-Watson has launched the Get Fair About Farming campaign, with a petition which calls on the government to amend the Grocery Supply Code of Practice to enforce retailers buying what they agreed, paying what they agreed and also paying on time.

Riverford founder and farmer Guy Singh-Watson. Credit: Stu Everitt/Riverford Farmers/PA WireRiverford founder and farmer Guy Singh-Watson. Credit: Stu Everitt/Riverford Farmers/PA Wire
Riverford founder and farmer Guy Singh-Watson. Credit: Stu Everitt/Riverford Farmers/PA Wire

Guy said: “British Agriculture is on its knees, and that’s why most small family farms think that they’re not going to be in business the next generation. Is that what we want from our countryside? Is that what we want from our food system? Is that what we want from farmers? Farmers need to be treated fairly - they need some commitment from supermarkets.

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“Sustainable trading relationships are based on co-operation, good communication and trust as much as competition. A brutal, short-term focus on annual price negotiations is supporting supermarket margins while destroying British farming along with the landscape, wildlife and rural communities it once supported.”

One Riverford potato grower Joe*, who quit his job in the City to move back to his wife’s family farm, said: “I’ve not grown for the major supermarkets for five years, and I would never go back. It cost me £25,000 to grow the crop - they just said ‘we don’t want them now’ - that was it, 60 metric tonnes of potatoes wasted.”

Potato farmer Joe. Credit: Stu Everitt/RiverfordPotato farmer Joe. Credit: Stu Everitt/Riverford
Potato farmer Joe. Credit: Stu Everitt/Riverford

Riverford says that, in particular, buyers not paying the amount initially agreed with farmers is a big issue. It said: “Farmers are denied commitment or security – with whole crops rejected at the last minute in favour of cheaper options elsewhere, or just because supermarkets change their mind. Good food ends up rotting in the field.”

Joe added: “There is no way I would grow for the supermarkets again. They'll squash you to keep the prices down. You just don’t know how much to expect in terms of income, and at times you end up taking huge financial hits and wasting so much food. We need a fairer, shorter, and more transparent food chain.”

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Guy has written an open letter to the CEOs of the “Big Six” supermarkets, calling for retailers to treat farmers more fairly. This has been signed by more than 100 leading figures, including Dragon’s Den entrepreneur Deborah Meaden, TV presenter Chris Packham and chef Rick Stein.

Guy Singh-Watson. Credit: James WalkerGuy Singh-Watson. Credit: James Walker
Guy Singh-Watson. Credit: James Walker

Jack Ward, the chief executive of the British Growers Association, tells me that while Riverford’s aims are laudable, there are wider issues with the industry than payment problems. “The overarching issue is we don’t pay enough, we pay unrealistically low prices for our fresh produce, and that’s the heart of the problem,” he says.

Jack explains that despite energy prices skyrocketing and food inflation reaching 20% over the past year, supermarket prices for carrots and cauliflowers have not increased since 2015. That is putting huge pressure on growers and leaving them with very small profit margins. 

He explains: “If you factor in everyone’s costs of production, including the retailers, as they have people, energy and suppliers they need to pay. It cannot be done on the amount that consumers are paying.”

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And for lots of fresh produce, such as onions, cauliflowers or apples, farmers have to commit to growing for years in advance before they’ll be able to sell to the retailers. “You want security and certainty to know that at the end of those years when you deliver the product, they [supermarkets] will say thank you very much for delivering it, here’s your money,” Jack says.

“The grower is shouldering a huge amount of risk and that’s what makes it so difficult to make a living. The system is broken and we cannot have sustainably sourced products under the current system - it’s not working. We’ve got sticking plasters over it, we’re patching it up, we’re doing whatever, we’re struggling through the season.”

Jack adds: “It’s a great campaign, they’ve locked onto three specific things - but actually it’s a bigger issue than this. Fundamentally there isn’t enough money in the system to reward everybody and we are slightly reorganising the deck chairs here.”

NFU President Minette Batters. NFU President Minette Batters.
NFU President Minette Batters.
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“The NFU has long called for greater fairness and transparency in the food supply chain, and farmers and growers need the confidence to invest in their businesses now and into the future.”

However the British Retail Consortium, the trade association for the UK’s retailers and supermarkets, says that Riverford’s points are already covered by law. Andrew Opie, the BRC’s director of food and sustainability, told NationalWorld: “The points raised in the petition are already covered in law for all direct suppliers to the major supermarkets. 

“Retailers are unique amongst UK food businesses because they are legally required to offer all direct suppliers written contracts covering payment conditions. Those requirements are overseen by an independent adjudicator.”

The Riverford petition has now got more than 112,000 signatories, and will be debated in Parliament on January 22. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said: “The government is committed to tackling contractual unfairness that can exist in the agri-food supply chain and Defra is working to support farmers and ensure they get a fair price for their products.

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“At the UK Farm to Fork Summit held at Downing Street on May 16, we announced a new review into fairness in the horticulture supply chain building on what we have already got underway to improve transparency and contracts in the pork and dairy markets.”

“This review seeks to understand issues relating to fairness in the supply chain across the whole of the UK. If responses indicate there are contractual issues that we believe we should seek to address, the powers in the Agriculture Act apply to the whole of the UK,” Defra added.

“Give us a backbone, and we’ll provide the British with the vegetables they need at the beginning of the season - as we know we’ll be supported - and you won’t have to import it.”

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So while families are tucking into their roasties, mash and sprouts this Christmas, farmers will be hoping they are thinking about where all the fresh produce comes from. We may all need to pay more for our fruit and vegetables soon to keep growers afloat.

Ralph Blackburn is NationalWorld’s politics editor based in Westminster, where he gets special access to Parliament, MPs and government briefings. If you liked this article you can follow Ralph on X (Twitter) here and sign up to his free weekly newsletter Politics Uncovered, which brings you the latest analysis and gossip from Westminster every Sunday morning.

*Names have been changed

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