In his 2007 book, Storytelling, the French intellectual Christian Salmon picks out the example of Jack Daniels. The adverts will be familiar: how an old boy learnt to make whiskey in Tennessee; the photographs are sepia, the denim is original workman’s clothes. Twenty-first-century marketing, Salmon posits, is about selling an idea of authenticity. Things have to have roots for people to believe in them. And where stories don’t exist, you have to create them.

Consider this when at a supermarket, picking up a packet of Nightingale Farms cherry tomatoes from Tesco or a Birchwood turkey from Lidl for your Christmas table. The names have been carefully chosen to give an idea of an idyllic farm in the UK. Lidl’s Birchwood is an in-store brand – and the only turkey on its list not to boast of being from a British farm. Nightingales, the birds, are rare in the UK; the farms of the same name don’t even exist. Nor do Woodside Farms or Willow Farms, brands also to be found on the shelves of Tesco – a supermarket that is the leader in this style of naming.

Such branding, points out Guy Singh-Watson, co-founder of Riverford Organic Farmers, in Devon, is an act of deception. He says: “When they began those brands [in the 2010s], I thought: ‘That will be embarrassing for them.’ Was it hell? They just opened a whole load more of them.”

There is no law against them. As with ghost kitchens – units on industrial estates pumping out food for Uber Eats customers without ever having a real restaurant – ghost farms are turning out complete products, with bespoke logos to add to their identities.

The question is: why have such brands? Because the British consumer has to be mollycoddled into the idea of believing in the authenticity of their food production. The last thing they should know, it would seem, is the real farm and how the food is produced. Because, if they did, the illusion might lift. Or, worse still, individual farmers might get a voice.

Singh-Watson, founder of Riverford Organic Farms, is one such farmer. A video on his farm’s website is part of a push to get a petition heard in Parliament to request that the Groceries Supply Code of Practice (GSCP) be reformed. It has just reached more than 100,000 signatures, which means it will be considered for a parliamentary debate. He is not the first farmer to point out there’s a crisis going on in British agriculture, but he is the first with the platform to make changes.

Riverford, which started in 1986, no longer sells organic vegetables to supermarkets, now preferring direct box delivery to consumers. The produce comes from its own and other farms to meet the demand.

Singh-Watson’s breach with the supermarket system came in 2001 when he got a call from one with which he had a contract. It had ordered up lettuce at 15p a head from him, then changed the price to 6p a head. Only after he threatened to go to the press did it back down.

We do need mass-produced foods to keep shelves full and prices down

The GSCP was drawn up in 2009 to stem the worst abuses of supermarkets dealing with their often beholden suppliers. It was meant to create fair contracts with certainty for suppliers of food and drink products, give reasonable notice for changes and ensure that buyers pay promptly.

But there are still loopholes in the legislation which mean it doesn’t happen. The farmer who put in potatoes in the chill of March can still find a contract cancelled. Good food goes to waste, as well as money and time. Many don’t complain, says Singh-Watson. “If anyone raises their head, they get a call from the supermarket.”

Shouldn’t we be doing more for British farmers? After all, who hasn’t watched Jeremy Clarkson? Good in fast cars, not so good at making a profit from grain production. Fruit and vegetable growers in the UK are hardly doing better. According to statistics put out by Riverford, 49 per cent fear closure in the next twelve months, with supermarkets’ behaviour being the major cause.

“The idea that [fake farms are] Adam Smith economics is just tosh,” says Singh-Watson dismissively. “Adam Smith would turn in his grave at the idea of six buyers and 10,000 suppliers being free market. It is anything but.” He has no faith in the concept of “perfect information”: the idea that, once all factors are known, rational decisions will be made. “Certainly not when the supermarket is keeping the supplier at one side and the food buyer at the other.”

The general public is dimly aware that farmers are struggling, after news items and statistics from the NFU. But it is difficult to connect the individual farmer to any particular product. The public will also look at the twee graphics – sketches of leaves, old-time typefaces – that accompany fake farm brands and assume that the meat or veg is British (it often isn’t) and produced on a small-scale (perhaps so inefficiently as to add a few pennies on each of these brands over a Tesco Value range). And attention is diverted from the main issue again.

Not every supermarket follows the Tesco fake-farm branding system. Aldi, a German store, has taken on the partnership idea. It has named British farms as suppliers and even has a show with Channel 4, Aldi’s Next Big Thing, in which producers pitch their product. This is an alternative kind of storification but also a step in the right direction: it allows farmers and food producers their own role in the narrative.

The Big Six supermarkets, including Tesco and Aldi, have so far not responded to an open letter from Singh-Watson. If they did speak, they might defend themselves by arguing that it’s not just about the farmer: they are under a social obligation to provide cheap food, particularly during a cost-of-living crisis. British farmers, of course, had their own cost-of-living crisis – a stark one. The Ukraine war caused petrol prices to spike, and ammonium nitrate fertiliser to quadruple in cost at one point.

However, it is just possible that the two contending issues – of farmers’ incomes and stable food prices – aren’t polar opposites. Since the start of the Ukraine war, there has been global food price inflation – steeper for imported foods than domestic.

Sushank Agrawal, of Inverto, the supply chain division of Boston Consulting, considered this question in an interview with business-to-business magazine Food Manufacture this summer. His conclusion was that it was brought about by supermarkets’ attitude to farmers. Products such as eggs, cheese and yoghurt, bought on short “transactional” contracts, suffered the worst inflation. A number of egg producers simply packed up this spring because their input costs were too high.

Because the supermarket hadn’t invested in producers, the farmers hadn’t the long-term security to invest in their own farms and bring down costs. Agrawal suggests supermarkets need to change how they think about farms if they want to achieve their goals: less as a supply model, more as a partnership. It’s an idea that sounds even more radical than the GSCP reform petition.

There remains a danger that we romanticise British farming, thinking the Riverford model could be expanded everywhere. It can’t. We do need mass-produced foods in the UK to keep shelves full and prices down. There are only so many people who can afford organic. And there are only so many farmer-entrepeneurs like Watson.

Things could be different, he says. “They could so easily have QR codes to see where your food was produced. But they don’t want to be tied to any one farm.”

Yet if brands such as Tesco have identified their consumers’ desire for “farm foods”, it would suggest there is also a demand for that rare product: authenticity. Call it a real loyalty scheme – where the customer is loyal to the supplier.

Joy Lo Dico writes for the Financial Times

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