Flavian Obiero shares his experience on how his business is valued in UK supply chains
14th August 2023
We talk to Tiktok star and tenant pig farmer Flavian Obiero about the challenges of being a small farmer in the UK right now – and what's needed to create a fairer, more equitable and more attractive farming sector.
How does food reach the table? Over the past few years, this question and the issues around it, have dominated headlines in the media, discussions in policy, and debates in food and farming circles.
Brexit ushered in new, controversial trade deals and exposed our reliance on European labour, while Covid and the Russian invasion of Ukraine highlighted the fragility of our global food system to external shocks – causing inflation, food shortages and hunger. Earlier this year, shoppers faced empty shelves after changing weather patterns affected harvests in Morocco and Spain, and an appetite for cheap food pushed the UK to the bottom of the queue in alternative export markets.
Add to that a changing post-Brexit policy environment and a cost-of-living crisis, and what emerges is a food system in freefall – with farmers pushed to breaking point.
In December 2022, a report found that UK farmers are often left with far less than 1p of profit after intermediaries and retailers take their cut. While it’s tempting to blame Brexit, Covid and the war in Ukraine, the problems plaguing our supply chains point to a more systemic issue: grossly imbalanced supply chains and with it, an urgent need to rethink value in food and farming.
Flavian Obiero is a tenant pig farmer based in Hampshire. He’s also part of a younger generation of farmers who are documenting the realities of food production in the UK – with over 79,000 followers on TikTok (@thekenyanpigfarmer) and videos that attract millions of viewers from around the world.
Flavian Obiero is a tenant farmer at Tynefield Farm in Hampshire.
At the start of his career, Flavian was working at a farm that sold produce through a marketing group straight to a processor. “It was difficult. Demand for pork was going up, but the processors tried to buy below what it cost to produce to make their margins. The only thing we could do to stay profitable was to try and constantly cut costs in other areas. Other than that, we had no control, because we were selling on the open market.”
A few years later, he moved to a farm which operated through a completely different business model. “Before taking on my current tenancy, I worked at a farm that owned a farm shop. It was a very short supply chain, and I could control most aspects of it – except the abattoir. It was a much better system than where I started out, but obviously it’s not available to all farmers.”
Flavian now runs a tenant farm with his partner, where he sells his high-welfare pork direct to consumers through a local farm shop and through his recently acquired hog roast catering business – a diversification which allows him to make good margins from his product.
He also now takes his pigs to the abattoir for slaughter, but feels that there’s needs to be much more support for small abattoirs across the UK: “We recently lost an abattoir in the south east, so I now drive an hour and a half to the nearest one. And it feels like all the work I’ve done – reducing antibiotics, not using soy feed, raising the pigs in a high welfare environment, trying to reduce the carbon footprint of the farm – is lost because of this missing link in the supply chain”.
Shorter supply chains – like selling direct to farm shops – do offer a fairer, more equitable route to market for farmers, and gives communities access to local, high-quality food. But not everyone has a farm shop on their doorstep, and spiralling housing and energy costs mean that household budgets are squeezed too tight to make fairly valued food affordable.
Flavian's pigs are reared in a high welfare environment with minimal antibiotic use and no soy feed.
On the opposite end of the spectrum are the supermarkets, and for Flavian, the pressure they exert on food producers is problematic. Flavian says, “Supermarkets dictate their terms and expectations, but when it comes to paying the farmer a fair price for the work, it usually doesn’t match up. If you speak to processors, they’ll blame retailers. We need supermarkets and processors to pay farmers for the costs of production plus a reasonable margin – and then absorb that into their business model or pass it onto the consumers. They can decide. The fact that there aren’t any laws or legislation protecting farmers in the UK is incredible.”
Is there a middle ground between farm shops and supermarkets that can pay farmers a fair wage, and deliver healthy, sustainable and affordable food? “We are starting to see more regional independent retailers but they can’t compete with supermarkets right now. For these to work at scale and to stand a chance in the current climate, the supermarket model needs to change – and stop squeezing the farmer”.
Flavian highlights, for example, the pressure farmers are under from imports. “We are continuously outcompeted by international markets. There’s nothing wrong with imports for products like coffee or bananas, but why are we importing things we can produce ourselves, like pork or lamb?”
“If we’re serious about sustaining a farming sector in this country, we need to ask ourselves who is responsible for facilitating this exchange and undercutting British farmers? Government, big food companies, the hospitality industry and citizens all have a part to play. Politicians like to blame Russia or Covid, but this problem was happening before.”
It’s a highly topical issue. Earlier this year, supermarkets resorted to egg imports from other countries, blaming Avian Flu for the shortage of British eggs. Some farmers have dismissed this as smoke and mirrors, accusing supermarkets of refusing to buy British eggs because they’re too expensive.
It’s clear Flavian is frustrated by the lack of action on the part of the government: “I’ve been to endless roundtables and consultations, and nothing ever happens.” And yet, he continues to attend government meetings in the hope that things will change, the latest being a roundtable on new entrants.
“Yes, we need to make farming a more attractive livelihood through support schemes and better access to land. But we also need the government to introduce regulation and guardrails to ensure supply chain fairness. And then we can attract people into a more profitable industry.”
Flavian wants to see more government backing for high quality British produce, like support for small, local abbatoirs.
Another solution, Flavian thinks, lies in raising public support and awareness for farmers and their struggles. “Farmers are just losing money and hope. We need regain control and engage with the public on our own terms.”
Flavian points to Jeremy Clarkson. “Whatever you think of him, the one good thing Jeremy Clarkson has done is get the public to understand the difficulties of farming. That’s invaluable and it’s why I post content on TikTok every day. To show the people the reality of farming and where their food comes from. And Jeremy’s got people queuing for miles outside his farm shop, so we know it works.”
He’s also passionate about engaging younger generations. “I did a talk at a school in South London and I ended up describing the slaughter process. The kids aren’t the ones who are phased by it, it’s the teachers! But I’ve never met anyone who isn’t interested in food production and what happens on farms. We just need to harness that and turn it into something positive and productive.”
It’s a refreshing perspective and reflects the growing momentum behind citizen engagement projects to tackle the critical issues of the day, such as the National Conversation About Food. As Flavian says, “There’s no silver bullet to fix food and farming. But the one thing farmers can do that’s within their control is to start engaging with the public, in whatever way they can.”
This summer, FFCC is convening supply chain experts, farmers and leaders in the food and farming sector to carefully consider the complex challenges at the heart of the food system value chain, and the barriers that prevent progress towards a more balanced system.