Adding, or added, value is a phrase now familiar to most farmers, the process of taking a basic commodity such as grain, meat or milk and doing something to it to make it worth more.
Some farm businesses are not only familiar with the idea, but work hard to add that value. Examples in our own area include ice-cream and cheese making on dairy farms, “luxury” and speciality organic meat products and cold-pressed oil from oilseed rape.
Plus those who work hard to make their meat, eggs, poultry, vegetables or potatoes distinctive in the way they are produced and who sell their product with innovative marketing and advertising, including through farmers’ markets and farm shops.
It is hard work, it needs commitment and investment and belief, not everyone who tries succeeds or is good at it and only those who deal directly with the public know how fickle shoppers can be.
I can only admire those farmers who make the effort to survive and thrive in the British food market, one of the most competitive in the world. And that admiration rose a notch or two after I watched two recent television documentaries, on breakfast cereals and yogurt respectively.
The Kellogg story started with grain – “bland and uninteresting” – being fed to patients at what we would now call a health farm and they didn’t much like it. One of the Kellogg brothers running the health farm was determined to stick with bland and uninteresting; the other toasted cereal, added sugar, started selling to the outside world, and turned 75 cents worth of maize into $12 worth of breakfast cereal.
Not all profit, of course. The Kellogg brother who realised that adding sugar to anything will make it sell broke all previous records for advertising. The result is obvious today in any supermarket. There are more than 700 varieties of cereal and Kellogg alone sells more than $1 billion of cereals round the world each year.
The irony should not be lost of poor nutrition or near-starvation in many countries where a bowl of porridge made simply with grain and water would be welcome, compared with British shoppers paying up to £3 a packet for a sugary product in which the original cost of the grain was about 15p.
But that’s convenience, marketing, packaging, and creating a demand for you. As one of the marketing men explained in the documentary, people pay more because they believe they do not have time. That has been taken to a new level in recent years when cereal bars that could be eaten on the move became a popular breakfast because, said the marketing man, people didn’t have time to pour milk.
For those of us who stick to porridge and have a rule of thumb to avoid any cereal product that turns milk brown, it might seem that better management of time – getting up early enough to make and eat breakfast – is a better answer than eating anything on the run. But food makers and sellers deal with the world of shoppers as it is, not how it should be, and if quick-fix sugary cereal is what they want, that’s what they get.
Determined efforts by concerned nutritionists and food agencies might have lowered the sugar content of cereals a little, but not much. No maker, including Kellogg, is going to give up the lucrative combination of grain and sugar. Besides, realising that I might not eat the cereals, but recognised so many of the famous advertising jingles of the past and present, it’s easy to see why children seem to like them. And why branded cereals still have 80 per cent of the total market in spite of supermarkets’ own-brand versions costing a third less.
The yogurt story was similar. As dairy farmers continue to quit because of poor returns, the big yogurt companies using cheap milk sell billions of pounds worth annually. From hippy food to super food in 40 years, yogurt is now one of the most versatile and most profitable foods ever sold.
That includes the probiotic liquid yogurt market, a product marketed as good for your gut and general health without any real medical evidence, a classic marketing triumph of producing an answer to a question no-one had asked.
Yet such is the power of advertising and professional marketing that one such product started with sales of about £3 million a year in 1997 and now has sales of about £115 million, in spite of questions asked about its health claims by the European Food Standards Authority since 2006.
It’s a variation of the old saying that you can take a horse to water, but can’t make it drink – shoppers can be given good advice on nutrition and told about questionable claims for food and drink, but they don’t have to listen. And quite often we don’t.
For those brave farming entrepreneurs looking at what sells and what doesn’t in a multi-billion-pound grocery market, what they’re up against must seem daunting. Against that, they can only believe that there must be, and are, niche markets for their own products. As noted recently, we can’t all be Bernard Matthews. Or Kellogg, or make Actimol. But on a more modest scale, more local farm businesses than we think are having a good try.*