‘Enough is enough’ say region’s dairy farmers

A SOUR mood has settled over the milk industry. Anxiety has curdled into anger among farmers after a torrent of farm gate price cuts announced in short succession.

Dairy farmers, a normally easygoing and forbearing lot, are running out of patience.

This week their anger at the processor-imposed cuts spilled over as more than 2,500 of them, including scores arriving by coach, car and train from East Anglia, gathered in London on Wednesday for a dairy summit.

Even the normally-popular East Anglia-based Farming Minister Jim Paice was booed after he took to the stage at Central Hall, Westminster.

Farming leaders say dairy farmers are being pushed to the brink by the most recent cuts to the price they are paid for their milk.

The latest round of cuts of up to 2p per litre, due to take effect on August 1, come on top of similar cuts in the spring, recently announced by major milk processors.

They have warned the cuts will force many farmers out of business, pushing up the price of milk for consumers in the long term.

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Many, including Suffolk farmer John Collen, based at Gisleham, near Lowestoft, have already voted with their feet and left the industry. Since 2002, there has been a rapid exit from dairying and the number of herds in East Anglia has fallen by 58% to 222.

The latest announcement by three of Britain’s biggest milk-buyers to slash almost 2p litre from August 1, has upset the vast majority of the declining number of dairy farmers.

Dairy farmers are demanding that the price cuts are reversed by August 1.

National Farmers’ Union deputy president Meurig Raymond said dairy farmers had been “pushed to the brink” by the latest cuts.

“These latest cuts are the feed bills, the wages, the housekeeping and will take us well into loss-making territory, with many farmers losing up to 6p per litre,” he said.

“Society has to recognise what these dairy farmers have been put through by a market place that doesn’t work and is not fair.”

“My final message is to retailers, processors, Government and loyal consumers: It’s time to back our dairy industry,” he said. His speech earned him a standing ovation.

Farmers for Action chairman David Handley said dairy producers needed their money back before talks about the future of the industry “because it’s no future with no money”.

If the cuts were not reversed by the end of the month, “we will have no option but to show them what we are capable of,” he warned.

Mr Paice told the packed meeting that it was not the Government’s job to fix milk prices.

But that morning he brokered a meeting between both sides in the dispute over pricing and said they were close to agreeing a voluntary code for the industry which could potentially end some of the contentious issues around pricing, including short-notice cuts and long-term contracts which locked dairy farmers in.

The Government has also announced an extra �5 million from the rural economy grant scheme to help dairy farmers be more efficient.

But Mr Paice drew loud, angry boos and heckling from the crowd of farmers when he asked them if they were sure they had done everything they could to drive down production costs.

The latest cuts will see farmers being paid around 25p a litre for milk, compared to more than 30p it costs to produce.

Mr Paice faced boos at the beginning and end of his speech and jibes from farming leaders that he did not know the price of milk, after admitting the day before that he did not know how much it cost “because my wife buys most of it”.

“What we are determined to do is do everything we can to make the market work more fairly and rebalance the power in the market place,” he said.

“I will continue to use my position to bang heads together, to encourage and cajole the whole of the supply chain to take responsibility for this situation and find a better way for this industry to flourish.”

A number of the major supermarkets, including Tesco, Waitrose, Sainsbury’s and Marks & Spencer, have contracts with farmers that pay a fair price for milk.

That, combined with growing support for their cause from the public and a wide range of groups and organisations across the country, is giving dairy farmers heart and emboldening them to make their voices heard to a degree they have not attempted in generations.

The issue has also galvanised farmers, and rival groups within the farming community, to unite to an almost unprecedented extent.

At the summit, alongside the National Farmers’ Union (NFU), was Nigel Miller, president of NFU Scotland, Stephen James vice-president of NFU Cymru, David Handley of Farmers for Action, Ian Macalpine of the Royal Association of British Dairy Farmers (RABDF), and Richard Elliot of the Tenant Farmers Association.

Processors, like farmers, complain they are being squeezed as the price of milk plummets. Some farmers are blaming the dash for market share on the milk industry’s current woes. What’s clear, say many farmers, is that each link in the supply chain needs viable margins in order to make it work. What is not clear is how that is going to be achieved.

The farmers’ demands for a better deal for themselves are being backed by the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) and the World Society for Protection of Animals (WSPA).

Bill Bryson, CPRE vice president, said: “If you do a fair day’s work you deserve fair pay for what you produce. But for too long dairy farmers have been at the mercy of opportunistic price cuts that have driven more and more of them out of business.”

WSPA supporter and Dragons’ Den investor Deborah Meaden said: “I have been shocked by the recent unrest in the UK milk market - our UK dairy supply chain is currently weighted towards a situation where supermarkets and processors hold too much of the bargaining power.

“A fundamental rule of business is to be able to sell your product for more than it costs to make. Farmers need to be allowed to run a truly sustainable business model, otherwise we risk losing them from the industry and with them, cows in fields and a countryside that people recognise.”

The Soil Association said the prices cuts were “unacceptable”.

“This will cause significant negative impacts on an already beleaguered industry, posing further threat to dairy farms across the country,” it said.

NFU East spokesman Brian Finnerty said farmers had been buoyed by the many messages of support they had received, but were still angry at the increasingly unviable margins they now faced.

Many had been brought to the brink and would be forced out of business, he warned, and there was anger in the hall. But the summit had been a show of strength, and farmers were hoping that it would lead to a new pricing structure and better rules.

“The key message is there’s 21 days to reverse these cuts,” he said. “We have all got to work together so we can all make some money out of the milk supply chain.”

“There was a lot of anger in the room, a lot of frustration in the room about the current situation the farmers are in,” he said.

Suffolk dairy farmer Jonathan Crickmore hopes the summit will act as a catalyst and shake dairy farmers - and the public - out of their apathy.

The Bungay-based farmer remains very much committed to the industry, but fears for its future.

“It was great having the response of people actually coming out and making the effort, which is really a first with dairy because we don’t generally do anything,” he said. “If the prices aren’t put back on August 1, there’s going to be protesting until the prices do go back.”

He hopes the anti-cuts campaign will raise awareness of their plight and make consumers think twice when they go to the supermarket and pick up their milk. He is calling on farmers to use social media to get their message out.

“We have just got to keep the momentum going,” he said. “We have got to get the public on side.”