Landlines: Squeeze is hitting everyone

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A farming census is only a snapshot and frequently all it does is put a statistical label on months of anecdotal evidence, that is, what we can see around us or on trips further afield than our own parish.

But any series of snaps taken over time can be revealing, and results of the most recent for Scottish farming confirm the long-term decline in beef cattle and sheep numbers. Year-on-year drops of 2% for both might not seem critical, but sheep numbers have now fallen every year since 1998 to this year’s 6.57 million and beef numbers almost as steadily for a decade, to 726,000. Pig numbers also continue to slump, down 12% to 319,000.

Which brings us to the problems facing meat processors and the big retailers that dominate our grocery shopping. It’s always difficult to feel sorry for the middleman, who’s usually seen as squeezing the producer of the basic product – the livestock farmer – while making a profit when selling to the supermarket.

If only, say processors, who claim they are being squeezed by supermarkets – themselves facing resistance by shoppers – unwilling to pay a price that leaves any profit margin on the higher prices they have had to pay for live animals.

That doesn’t apply all the time, as witness a recent slump in lamb prices. But the solution to their consumer resistance problem by two of the big supermarkets, Tesco and Asda, to import cheaper supplies hasn’t helped. We’re now in the peak season for Scottish lamb, yet these two supermarkets are stocking large quantities of New Zealand and Australian lamb. Farmers would like shoppers to buy at Morrison and Sainsbury, both 100% British meat on the shelves, or support local private butchers. But I fear as always that most shoppers buy on price.

Changes in the European Union subsidy system a decade ago that separated annual subsidy from the number of livestock kept, accelerated the decline in sheep and cattle numbers. Why keep the maximum number a farm could carry when reducing numbers would reduce management and physical stress?

Now the problems of the processing industry, reduced consumer spending and 
supermarket greed threaten to speed the decline until we reach, in the jargon, a tipping point because of loss of critical mass. That is, not enough livestock produced in Scotland to make processing here viable, a stage that has almost been reached with pigs, with only a handful of slaughterhouses and processing plants in the whole country meaning long journeys for livestock. With the loss of slaughterhouses in the Borders it might be argued we’ve already reached that stage here for all livestock.

Buy local, eat local, are worthy rallying calls to shoppers. But not easy to stick to when even a lamb produced within a few miles of where a chop or roast is being eaten has travelled several hundred miles between farm and plate. Or when supermarkets in trouble with shareholders because of falling profits go abroad for the cheaper option. In some ways no-one in the chain can be blamed for reluctance to spend, trying to cut costs or trying to increase profits. But the net result is an iffy outlook for Scottish and British livestock production.