Hundreds of dairy farmers staged a protest against falling milk prices outside the Muller Wiseman processing factory in Shropshire.
At least 500 farmers, their families and friends targeted the Market Drayton-based dairy giant on Monday night (6 October) to demonstrate their anger over plunging farmgate milk prices.
In scenes reminiscent of the 2012 SOS Dairy campaign, dairy farmers blockaded the Muller plant from 9pm onwards and prevented lorries from accessing the site.
Lobby group Farmers For Action (FFA), which represents about one-third of the UK’s dairy farmers, organised the protest and said more dairy processors and supermarkets would be targeted in the coming weeks.
Muller Wiseman chief executive Ronald Kers branded FFA supporters as “militants” and warned that their actions would add to the “substantial cost” inflicted on the dairy industry, which was already under severe pressure.
But FFA chief executive and Monmouthshire dairy farmer David Handley said talks had broken down between the two parties and protesting was the only course of action to move things forward.
“How he [Ronald Kers] can turn round and classify the milk group he was talking to for 45 minutes on the phone on Sunday as a bunch of militants is outrageous,” Mr Handley told Farmers Weekly.
“It’s inflammatory language and it’s not helpful. During our conversations over the past week, he mentioned at least two or three times that farmers were producing too much milk.
“But what he doesn’t tell the media is the state of the profit and loss accounts within the business of Muller Wiseman.”
Mr Handley urged Muller Wiseman to:
- Guarantee no further price cuts this year “unless they could be justified with numbers and open-book accountancy”
- Re-examine all the cuts month by month and show farmers “where the money has gone and why”
- Work with retailers to increase the value of milk up the supply chain.
Mr Handley said up to and including the 1 November cuts, dairy farmers should be owed an extra 4p/litre, according to FFA figures.
Muller Wiseman was one of a number of major dairy processors to announce price cuts last week. It slashed its farmgate milk price by 1.9p to 27.1p/litre from 1 November – the fourth cut since April when its prices were 6.5p/litre higher.
Muller, which is supplied by 1,200 dairy farmers, blamed its latest reduction on significantly lower returns from its sales of cream, butter and surplus milk.
Mr Kers said UK dairy farms had increased production by more than 1bn litres of milk this year – almost an extra litre for every 10 produced this year.
On average, the cost of production for a litre of milk is 30p. The NFU said some dairy farmers were being paid as little as 25p/litre, losing thousands of pounds and threatening their businesses.
But despite this, the union said it would not be backing direct action against retailers and processors.
An NFU spokesman said: “The NFU continues to talk with processors, supermarkets and government. We remain committed to fighting for functioning markets and fairer contracts. “This ultimately is the best way to achieve farmgate milk prices that fairly reflect the value of milk.”
Dairy analyst Ian Potter said Muller Wiseman and the FFA had developed a “love-hate relationship”.
He warned: “For some farmers, we have not reached the bottom and they are now realising that this is really serious.
“Some commentators are saying the price cuts are only short term and it will turn around in 2015. If that’s so, can someone tell me which month?
“I have spoken to some farmers who have said they will do this winter and that will be it.
“For some, it will be detrimental. This will mean exiting the industry. With that comes a lot of frustration and family arguments.”
Mr Potter said a number of factors, including the slump in global dairy commodities, the global oversupply of milk and the Russian trade embargo, were responsible for the latest milk price slump.
But he questioned why farming unions and the main dairy processors, including Muller, had urged farmers to increase milk production earlier this year.
“Up until this year, Muller were paying a bonus to new recruits and existing producers to produce more milk,” said Mr Potter.
“If you ring up Muller now, you’ve got no chance of getting a contract, no matter how special you are. We have gone very quickly from asking for new recruits to saying: ‘how quickly can we get rid of you?’”
*Farmers For Action has planned to stage a second milk protest in Bridgwater, Somerset on Wednesday (8 October).
(Pictures courtesy of Jimbob @jbwills007)