Booths and the price of milk

Last year, the Minx came across a film called ‘The Moo Man‘ that she fancied seeing, so we went to see it at The Dukes, in Lancaster. It’s a great film and I highly recommend it. It tells the story of a dairy farmer who is struggling to make ends meet. He works harder than anyone I’ve ever seen and yet a little way into the film, you learn that because of the prices that supermarkets pay for milk he is receiving tax credits from the state. He sets out to sell his milk direct to the public to reverse his fortunes. (I tried some; it was unpasteurised and delicious.)

In the days following the film, this whole business about the supermarkets paying farmers less for their milk than it costs to produce started to really bug me, so I wrote to Booths which is the supermarket in the town where I live and the one I use the most. My question was quite simple: do you pay farmers more for their milk than it costs to produce? Since Booths make a big deal out of supporting local farmers, I was hoping for an unequivocal ‘YES’ but I didn’t get it. I just got some waffle. I meant to pursue it but, you know, I was busy and I let it slide.

Then, last week, I saw this sign in Booths:

2014-10-02 17.55.28

Now, I don’t believe Booths would lie – I’m sure they do pay more than any other supermarket – but I didn’t like the leap of logic; all of the other supermarkets pay so badly that simply paying more than them didn’t, as far as I could see, ensure a ‘truly fair deal’.

So I tweeted @BoothsCountry and asked “Your ‘Fair Milk’ promotion: do you actually pay the farmers more than the cost of production for each pint?” I didn’t get a reply so I tweeted them again the next day (yesterday) and they did respond this time and said they’d get back to me. And today they did.

They said: “Hi Fenner. Apologies for the delay. Other retailers set their prices based on the cost of production, therefore because…”
“…we pay the highest price of all retailers, we’re reassured that we’re paying above cost of production :)”
“Our farmers; Bryan, Richard, Edward & Roger also tell us our price helps them to reinvest in their farms for the long term”

Which doesn’t *quite* answer the question, does it? And really, if you were offering your farmers a ‘truly fair deal’, wouldn’t you ensure that you were not only paying more than the cost of production but also ensuring the farms made a profit?

At this point, the Minx asked for clarification: “@BoothsCountry @fennerpearson “reassured”? So you DO pay above the cost of production? (apologies for needing clarification)”

Booths then replied, omitting me from the response: “@Artminx We pay the highest price for milk against other retailers, many who base their prices on the cost of production :)”

Which is still curiously evasive, isn’t it? The Minx thought so, too: “. @BoothsCountry It is like talking to a politician. Can you categorically agree you pay more than production? Yes or No?”

Oddly, at this point, Booths became less evasive: “@Artminx  Transparency is very important to us at Booths & the cost of production of milk varies for each individual farm…”
“@Artminx We are confident that farmers are receiving the highest price in the market & this more than covers their cost of production” Now, why didn’t they just say that in the first place?

But it didn’t finish there. Our Twitter friend Zoe, then joined in. As her family have a dairy farm, she is well informed on the subject. Booths response: “@Zowrr Hello Zoe, if you’d like to discuss Fair Milk please DM us with your contact details & a member of the team will be in touch :)” Zoe declined. But she did speak to her brother who confirmed that Booths do indeed pay the best prices but only to their four farmers. (That’s Bryan, Richard, Edward & Roger, remember?)

So, now their sign takes on a different meaning:
“Support your local farmers” – yes, we all want to do that.
“We guarantee to pay our farmers more than any other supermarket for every pint of milk” – see that? A little sleight of hand: “to pay
our farmers”, i.e. those four farmers. Not necessarily your local farmers.

Now, I like Booths. It’s easily my favourite supermarket, despite being rather expensive, and I spend a lot of money there. But, as I say, I like it and I like the staff. I like the company’s dedication to quality and I like how they do stock local produce. But I don’t like this game their marketing people are playing with the whole ‘fair milk’ promotion. It’s not clear that they are really paying those four farmers more than the cost of production. Yes, they told the Minx that but why didn’t they say it upfront? Why didn’t they tell me that?And why try to move Zoe’s question to DM and off the timeline?

When I asked them last year, Booths couldn’t tell me that that they paid any of their milk providers more than the cost of production. Now they appear to have found a way to make themselves look like the good guys.

But, you know what, maybe they are! Maybe I’ve read this all wrong, looking for disingenuity where there is none. And, frankly, I’d like to be wrong. I’d love to see a supermarket paying the farmers a fair price for milk and I’d be absolutely delighted for that supermarket to be Booths. So, come on Booths, get your story straight or put someone on Twitter who really understands what’s going on and tell us exactly how you’re working to support local farmers. I really want to hear it.

About fennerpearson

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11 Responses to Booths and the price of milk

  1. artminx says:

    Reblogged this on artminx and commented:
    Really nice blog piece.

    To be honest, and I too love Booths (as you know we have a great one here in Chorley) , I am seriously considering boycotting them. The whole conversation made me feel very uneasy. They promised to email the contact details of the farmers so we can have the discussions directly with them, I am hoping it will more straight forward than todays conversation.

    A few years ago a friend of mine introduced me to a girl who was selling veg boxes from her fathers farm so he could supplement his income made from selling to supermarkets. The boxes were crammed with seasonal veg and cost £7.50 each, a complete bargain. I mentioned that it must be hard to when selling so cheaply, she then went on to explain that at this price her father can make a good profit, I was amazed. I asked if he could perhaps sell to a company like Booths as they value local produce, her response was shocking, she stated they were the worse they had dealt with, really driving down the cost for the smaller local providers.

    Now this is just one conversation and I don’t know all the intricate business facts but month by month I am becoming more uncomfortable with Booths and the way they treat their suppliers and their customers. Their slick Xmas brochure must cost a great deal to produce. I loved them when they were like a lovely local deli, and not a scaled down corporate like Waitrose.

    I may need to seriously start to commit to only buying from local independents. This makes me sad because I really love Booths decaf coffee beans.

    S x

  2. Mr Ordinary says:

    Why on earth do you pick out the one supermarket trying to do good? Why not spend your time writing an article about the supermarkets who don’t help the farmers rather than trying (but failing) to discredit the one that does???

    I read the twitter rants, and it just sounds like a bunch of know it all’s trying to be clever. But anyone with half a brain can see how badly you all failed, almost on the verge of embarrassing yourselves.

    Hang your head in shame.

    • artminx says:

      Hi Mr Ordinary

      OK so we should focus on the other supermarkets who pay less for milk right?

      Firstly, I don’t use the other supermarkets. And in previous conversations over the years we have commented on them too.

      Secondly, Booths is our local supermarket, the one we use most. And you seem to have totally missed the point of the blog. Booths currently have point of sale marketing displays professing to be delivering a ‘fair deal’ for the farmers they buy milk from. This has NOTHING to do with other supermarkets. This is about a company claiming they are paying their farmers a fair price when in the past they were not even paying the price of production. This was clearly not fair EVEN if they were paying more than other supermarkets.

      We are simply trying to find out if they finally pay a fair price for their milk. If they do, if they pay more than production than clearly this is fair.

      However, Booths have been vague when responding to our requests. Never clearly stating they DO play more than production costs.

      Anyone with “half a brain’ would understand this whole conversation we have been having with Booths. Anyone with “half a brain” would understand how it actually has nothing to do with other supermarkets as we don’t purchase milk from other supermarkets. Any one with “half a brain” would understand how claiming to be better than someone else whilst still being pretty unfair yourself is fairly hypocritical.

      Why would you want to buy from a company who (if they don’t pay ‘fair’ prices) are comfortable with trying to trick you into thinking they do?

      The beauty of this whole conversation surrounding the ‘fair milk’ price is that we are free to ask these questions, because despite what you think they do matter. Booths don’t mind us asking them, Booths don’t mind us talking directly to their four farmers whom they buy milk from. And this way we can gain confidence that when we buy our milk from our local supermarket that the farmers that work hard to produce the milk they are truly getting a fair price that the supermarkets advertise they get.

      Lots of people may not care. We live in rural areas and perhaps are more connected with the issue. These farmers are our neighbours and many are struggling to survive and if it were not for tax credits would not still be in business. I personally buy most of my milk from my milkman, the rest from Booths.

      Forgive me for thinking you may not have understood the whole picture around this conversation. I think I have addressed all your comments and I hope you feel no embarrassment for not grasping the deeper issues surrounding the importance of clarity with point of sale marketing.

      Suzanne.

    • Hi Mr Ordinary,

      Thanks for taking the time to comment. As far as your first paragraph goes, it’s as @artminx says: I’m fully aware of the situation with other supermarkets, as it says in the blog, and I think it’s also clear that I approached Booths both because they are my local supermarket and because of the specific claim that they made.

      As for the rest of your comment, well, I don’t think it really warrants a reply.

      Thanks again,
      F

      • Alan Kirby says:

        Dear Fenner,
        Following your tweets last week Booths would like to set the record straight on Fair Milk. Earlier this year, Booths pledged to pay the highest farm gate price to the farmers supplying milk to Booths. We launched “Fair Milk” replacing all our own label milk, promising to pay the highest supermarket price, which stands at 35 p per litre today, to farmers.

        The average price of production varies from farm to farm, but the BBC quote this today to be about 30p per litre. So the simple answer to your question is yes, Booths are paying above the price of production to their farmers. We pledge to continue to pay the highest price in the market ensuring we carry on living up to “Fair Trade” principles.

        But the wider issues surrounding the dairy industry are more complex than the 140 characters Twitter allows.

        It might help to give you some background on the Fair Milk project. Booths, in supermarket circles, is a small operation, with just 29 stores. We have limited buying power in large commodity markets like milk. Until we launched Fair Milk, we were at the mercy of the milk processors we purchased our milk from to set the price of milk paid to farmers supplying Booths. This was something we were uncomfortable with, so to set a wrong right, we created a scheme where the farmers who supply our milk are paid the highest market price per litre.

        You rightly point out that this deal only benefits 4 farmers. As a small retailer, we have to start somewhere. We are trying to do what is right, Fair Milk is as much about sending the right signals to other retailers as it is giving a fair deal to our dairy farmers. We are not suggesting that we will be able to make that much difference to global milk markets. But it does demonstrate that there is a supermarket out there who will pay top price, and our farmers do genuinely believe it makes a huge difference to them. A lot of our stores are in rural areas, dairy farmers are our customers.

        We acknowledge that the delay in responding to your query on twitter might have made us look evasive on our commitment to Fair Milk . Nothing could be further from truth. In fact, we were contacting our farmers to respond to your concerns in more detail, and indeed, some of our farmers will respond to your blog personally.

        We hope the above renews your confidence in Booths and we welcome not only your custom, but appreciate your commitment to supporting the wider farming community.

        Kind regards,

        Alan Kirby
        Dairy Buyer for Booths

      • Hi Alan,

        Thanks so much for taking the time to write to me about this: it is pretty much the response I was hoping for.

        To be honest, I might still have had some doubts about whether this represents a “truly fair deal” since the price per litre you’re paying seems perilously close to what I believe is an average cost of production, which, of course, will be higher for some farms. However, the subsequent reply from Claire and Richard makes it clear that Booths has unarguably brought a great benefit to their farm.

        I appreciate that as a (relatively) small supermarket you can’t make a huge difference and yet that is no reason not to take a positive moral stance and I think it’s fantastic that you have done that. And it’s great that you have broken away from the milk processors, who, I infer, are a significant part of the problem. (And your explanation of that makes what I was told last year a bit clearer, thank you.)

        I think there’s a great story here. Wouldn’t it be worth putting a bit more of the background on your website? Talk is cheap but you appear to be genuinely doing something wonderful here in bucking a disgraceful trend.

        Thanks again for your comment.
        F

  3. Fenner,

    We can only pull on our personal experience, before we joined the Booths fair milk group we were financially juggling to keep our business afloat. A bit like the Moo man. We were having to sell off our assets, in the shape of our freshly calved heifers which was helping cash flow, but this was stopping us growing to a sustainable herd.

    If you compare then to now, joining the Booths group in Dec 2013, this has given us financial stability and listening to their long term aims fit with ours not only financially but ethically, this has given us confidence to be able to invest in new facility’s for our cows.

    If we had stayed with our old milk company we would still be living hand to mouth, now in our circumstances Booths are paying over our cost of production.

    Fenner, I think your points are valid and wish everyone would blog about the price of milk, please be assured Booths has been the best thing that has every happened to us as Lancashire farmers. There may only be four farms but we provide 6 million litres for Booths stores across the four counties.

    If you would like to come and visit or talk some more please contact the Booths team and we can arrange a visit. We would be delighted to show you the difference a Fair milk price has made to us, our family, our cows and our wellbeing.

    Kind Regards

    Claire and Richard Barber

    • Hi Claire and Richard,

      Thanks so much for taking the trouble to comment and it’s really great to hear the story from you. I’m not naturally cynical but supermarkets don’t do much to make me believe they treat their suppliers well. It’s good to hear directly from you that Booths are different.

      If you really would be delighted for me to visit, I’d love to come along. I will contact Alan.

      Thanks again,
      F

  4. Fenner,
    Your welcome to a visit anytime, We look forward to showing you around our herd and the differences the Booths Fair milk contract has made to us.
    Till soon
    Richard and Claire

  5. chris dodd says:

    Dear Fenner,

    Following reading your tweets, Brian and Chris Dodd, Cheshire suppliers to the Booths fair milk group have received a more sustainable milk price since joining in December 2013. Our cost of production fluctuates from season to season. Booths are paying the highest supermarket price which is higher than the cost of production. This is enabling us to reinvest in the facilities for our cows and giving us the confidence for the future in a family run dairy farm.

    Kind Regards

    Chris and Brian Dodd

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