So Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall has gone into battle again, this time with his War on Waste programme on BBC One. Supermarket produce specifications, trading practices and spin come off badly, with the focus on Morrisons’ demand for perfect parsnips. Hugh managed to find a rarity; a supermarket supplying farmer who was willing to speak out. In this case as in most, it led to extinction of the family business. My trading with supermarkets came to an end shortly after one of their buyers told me, “Look sonny, when we whistle, you jump”. I left the office, picked up a sledge hammer and set about destroying the packhouse I had started building. Another time I was told my little gem lettuces would be on offer and I would be paid 6p per lettuce instead of 15p, the minimum we could live with. Most growers get so ground down by this standard treatment that they suck it up until they go bust, or get bought out in the never-ending consolidation of supply; supermarkets just don’t want to trade with small family businesses.
In my experience, the abuse that spews from a dissatisfied supermarket buyer makes Cruella de Ville seem like the Dalai Lama. No-one should treat another human being like that, yet frustratingly their petulant demands don’t even reflect customer preferences. As Hugh points out and our customers tell us, most people don’t expect vegetables to look like they were made in a factory. Yet natural variation must be driven out when you supply a supermarket, which can only be done at vast human and environmental cost, with staggering, unjustifiable waste.
Nothing makes me happier than leaving a field with just stumps standing after harvest, knowing we’ve sold every last cauliflower, lettuce or leek that is edible. We can only do that by having much more forgiving cosmetic specifications. At times I know we test your tolerance with gluts of broad beans or artichokes, but our assumption is that you’re with us to feel connected with the people who grow your food, and that flavour and a sane food chain are what count. The whole system only works if we have the courage to risk irritating you now and then. If seven going on eleven billion of us are to share this planet, no-one can have exactly what they want all the time, not even a supermarket buyer.