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Report on the 53rd Reading Agricultural Club Conference by John Giles

Date Published: 07/02/2019

This event is a great tradition and organised annually by the students towards the end of January and attended by a good turn out of c. 200 students, staff and friends of the University, not least a healthy smattering of the Thames Valley Branch of the Institute of Agricultural Management.

The students put together an excellent panel of speakers, made up of Barney Kay, the Head of Agriculture from Tesco, Ali Capper, the Head of the NFU Horticultural Board (and an apple/hop grower in her own right) and finally, Dr Anna Macready, a specialist from the University in consumer behaviour and marketing. 

This was a well thought out panel, with all having similar, but at times different views on how the supply chain is and will interact in the future.  A lively Q & A session (which I was asked to chair) followed a series of individual presentations.  And to a large extent, we managed to avoid the dreaded “B” word for most of the evening too!

So, what were the main points that were raised over the evening?  These can be summarised as follows:

  • the need to develop “end to end” supply chains to ensure the security of supply and develop trust with favoured partners
  • consumers not only want great customer service, but also to know that farmers/suppliers and employees are all being treated fairly
  • with changes to the subsidy system likely to come in to effect some time after 2020, farmers need to change how they produce food. While there is often no strong link between scale of operation and costs of production, now more than ever, farmers need to know their COP relevant to their farming system
  • relationships in the supply chain need to be less transactional in the future and more based on long term commitments
  • farmers need to have a real focus on the attention to detail of how they manage their farms – good marketing is essential and more needs to be made of the fantastic looking farms and the physical settings they often enjoy
  • investment in state-of-the-art technology will be a big part of the future as to how need to farm in the UK
  • Producer Organisations can play an important role in helping to invest in innovation, R & D, accessing improved routes to market, benchmarking and giving producers more bargaining power and improving returns
  • we might well see trends such as “slowbilisation” impacting on consumer demand in the future and this is a big opportunity for UK farmers
  • producers need to actively engage with consumers and customers whenever possible and maximise PR opportunities in the media
  • too much food is wasted by consumers, but they are often unaware that they are doing this.As such, there is a need for greater consumer responsibility not just corporate responsibility in this, but there are still too many fragmented messages to consumers about how food is produced and the relationship with the environment
  • the development of block chain type technologies might be seen by some as the answer to everything, but there is a need to ensure this produces a cyclical flow of information between producers, processors, retailers and consumers, if this is to be truly effective

This was an excellent evening and enjoyed by all - not least, I detect by the panel themselves (always an important consideration).  We had good speakers, we all will have learnt something new, I expect, and as always, there was a chance to catch up with some old friends and make a few new ones too. The students who helped organise this deserve 10 out of 10 for all their efforts, not least in raising funds for RABI as part of the evening. Keep up the good work, Reading students!