LETTER FROM ONTARIO
Farmers are applauded for doing it cheap while others in the food industry enjoy the awards of value added elsewhere

Farm & Countryside Commentary by Elbert van Donkersgoed

Editor's NOTE

Elbert van Donkersgoed is the Strategic Policy Advisor of the Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario, Canada. CFFO is supported by 4,500 family farmers across the province of Ontario.

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October 24, 2003: In recent decades, the business of farming has focused on producing bulk undifferentiated products - cheaply. Measured as output per person, productivity in agriculture has leaped forward. In step, farm gate prices for primary foodstuffs have steadily declined. Farming adopted a cheap food policy. Many applaud this triumph of technology and entrepreneurship as success. I'm not so sure. The other players in the food chain have not followed suit.

Consider McDonald's. How has it replaced Coca-Cola as the world's most recognized brand? Is it because they make the best or lowest priced fast food? No, those low-cost primary ingredients from our farms have become Happy Meals and Meal Deals. The burgers, fries and shakes are a predictable and consistent -- value for money. Let me emphasize that: McDonald's delivers value for money, not cheap food. As a matter of fact, food is just a slice of the value they deliver. McDonald's owns more private playgrounds than any other organization. "Treat of the Week" has made them the world's largest distributor of toys. Most important, McDonald's has not oversold its food -- a happy customer is one whose expectations are exceeded.

The food business is not about cheap food. Leading edge food firms are "not selling food."

Some time ago the Canadian Council of Grocery Distributors made a presentation to a gathering of Provincial, Territorial and Federal Ministers of Agriculture. They described the trend to "not selling food."

One, grocery distributors are not selling food; they are selling time. Half a century ago cooking time in a typical household was an hour. Today we have compressed this to 10 minutes. We buy co-packed products like cheese and crackers or carrots and dip or stir-fry veggies altogether. Salads are available in a Ziploc -- just add your favorite topping.

Two, supermarkets are not selling food; they are selling health and nutrition. The growing interest in optimal health means disease prevention and eating right. Low fat, low cholesterol, omega three labels are everywhere on supermarket shelves. Packaging now offers nutrition facts and recipes for health.

Three, food stores are not selling food; they are selling emotional well-being. The presenters listed free range poultry, brands from the past, food of the world, ethical treatment of animals and environmentally friendly as desirable characteristics for tomorrow's marketplace.

Many farmers have let others add the value for which consumers are willing to pay: health, nutrition, emotional well-being and time - but not all. There are signs that farmers have had it with the cheap food program. Identity preservation, organic agriculture, omega three production and second-generation cooperatives are just a few examples. "Not selling food" is also an option for farmers.

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The Canadian Council of Grocery Distributors' presentation overheads to the Federal, Provincial, Territorial Ministers and Deputy Ministers of Agriculture, June 26, 2002 can be found at www.ccgd.ca/en/Presentjeanneen.pdf.

 

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