Promises made through crocodile tears

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We’ve probably all heard the expression “crocodile tears.” It comes from an old, very old, story that crocodiles cry in order to lure their victims or, alternatively, cry false tears of sympathy while eating them.

Take your pick for which reason works best in the two page adverts taken out in national newspapers last week by Tesco headlined “What Burgers Have Taught Us.”

The burger/horsemeat scandal has apparently taught Tesco that “we need to make it better,” it being the food industry on which it has built its supermarket empire.

More pertinently for British farming the tear-stained mea culpa went on: “We know that the more we work with British farmers the better … For farmers to do what they do best they need to know they’ve got our support.”

And so on and so on. Much the same line was taken by Tesco’s chief executive Philip Clarke when he spoke last week at the annual meeting of the NFU of England and Wales.

Well, hurray. A need for a fairer deal and more honesty is what farmers have been telling Tesco, and most other supermarkets, for years. And have the supermarkets listened until now?

No, they haven’t. Are they listening now that the horsemeat scandal has dented their sales and profits, even if, I suspect, only temporarily? Well, according to Mr Clarke and the two page adverts, yes, they are.

But another old story springs to mind, the one about the leopard never changing his spots. Over the next few months and years as the horsemeat story becomes old news and the need for supermarkets to buy supplies as cheaply as possible continues to drive their policies, farmers would do well to remember that. Nothing is easier to make than a promise, especially through crocodile tears.

A man who gave up trying to supply supermarkets because “they call all the shots” is John Sinclair of West Craigie, South Queensferry, who spoke at Kelso agricultural discussion society recently.

He also gave an interesting insight into the psychology of pick-your-own (PYO) fruit compared with the heyday of that particular farm diversification twenty or more years ago.

Both topics related to the soft fruit, mainly strawberry, enterprise started at the family’s 260 acres tenanted farm in the 1980s when the other main enterprise was off-farm contracting. But since the late 1990s, Mr Sinclair and his wife Kirsteen have built a business that now includes a farm shop, café, bakery and butchery, children’s playground, free range hens and making more than 30,000 jars of jam and chutney each year.

That included installing tunnels for strawberries in 2003 using the table-level growing method. “Picking at that level is easier and faster and comes in at about 25 to 30p a kilo compared with 60-70p at ground level,” he said.

Most of the crop was sold to supermarkets, but as many selling soft fruit have found unilateral decisions by the supermarket buyer can be arbitrary and sudden. The turning point came with the heavy snows of the 2010 winter that destroyed about £200,000 worth of tunnels and crop.

“Our marketing group was keen for us to start production again, but we took the hard decision to walk away and concentrate on local markets plus jam making,” said Mr Sinclair.

Under the Craigies brand – “You have to back that brand with a set of values and never cheapen it” – they now make more than 40 varieties of jam and chutney.

At the same time, they re-thought PYO. Mr Sinclair said: “Pick-your-own had been ticking away for years, but we realised that it had become a leisure activity and a good feed for a family, for most it wasn’t about getting supplies for jam.

“We couldn’t go on feeding the West End of Edinburgh for nothing, so we introduced a charge. If they pick a lot of fruit, they get money back.”

There were objections, with one particularly strong one on the social media network Facebook. But, Mr Sinclair said, that criticism became an advantage and an example of how important connections such as Facebook, Twitter and email can be.

“We worried about what to do and decided to explain why we had decided to charge a PYO entrance fee on Facebook. Within 24 hours we had more than 300 messages of support from regular customers.”

It’s purely anecdotal – that is, only what I’ve seen during some recent drives in the Borders and East Lothian – but in the Borders a number of new farm sheds are going up while in East Lothian, particularly the closer you get to Edinburgh, there seem to be a rash of conversions of old farm steadings to new housing.

Whether the farm sheds are replacements for some of the many sheds that collapsed during the winter of 2010, as happened to Mr Sinclair’s strawberry tunnels, I’m not sure.

But the use of old farm buildings as a stone base for new houses, most to a high standard and not cheap, seems to be going on apace in spite of the depressed state of the national economy and a sluggish to moribund housing market.

No doubt there have been business casualities along the way. But there’s always a hard core of entrepreneurs who refuse to give up. Just like farmers.