Dairy farmers are being urged to stick together ahead of a crucial six weeks in the fight for a fairer deal on milk contracts and prices.
Milk buyers have been given until 31 March to implement a voluntary code of practice overseeing the relationship between processors and farmers.
But many producers remain locked into contracts – even though the code is meant to make it easier for farmers to sell their milk elsewhere if they feel they can get a better deal.
Of the major processors, only Dairy Crest is believed to have fully implemented the code in writing, allowing its farmers to give 12 weeks notice if they want to supply someone else.
At the same time, many dairy farmers continue to make heavy losses – with rising input costs more than offsetting recent milk price increases.
More than 150 farmers attended a Farmers For Action (FFA) meeting to discuss both issues at the Mackworth Hotel, near Derby, on Wednesday (14 February).
Nobody at the meeting raised their hand when FFA chairman David Handley asked if any farmers were receiving a sustainable milk price.
An expected milk price for February had failed to materialise, said Mr Handley. An increase in March was also unlikely unless farmers did something about it, he added and explained it was vital that farmers presented a united front.
The dairy coalition – a group of bodies including FFA and the NFU – continue to press for fairer contracts and prices, said Mr Handley.
But a repeat of last summer’s milk price protests was possible but should only be seen as a last resort should processors refuse to implement the code, he warned.
“It is your industry and you can make the difference,” said Mr Handley.
“If you don’t believe in protest then you’ve got to do other things,” he said. “The days of sitting at home doing nothing are gone.”
Farmers should tell their processor if they were dissatisfied with the farmgate milk price. They could also make their feelings known to their local representative.
“There is plenty you can do if you think protest is the only answer,” said Mr Handley.
“Imagine if every single person in this room tonight told their processor tomorrow morning they were leaving with 12 weeks notice because the milk price was unsustainable.
“Imagine the impact that would have,” said Mr Handley. “It would cost you nothing but a trip down the road or a stamp on an envelope.”
“The days of sitting at home doing nothing are gone.”
Farmers should also contact their MP and their MEP, telling them “loud and clear” that milk prices remained unsustainable and the market wasn’t working.
Milk price protests remained a very real prospect, but would be better considered when the negotiation process had been exhausted, Mr Handley continued.
“If all that fails – and we have few more meetings to go yet – then we will be able to say we have tried everything and exhausted everything and we are back on the picket line.”
Dairy UK, which represents milk processors, insists that the process of implementing the code of practice is “in full swing” and companies are working through the details.
Jim Begg, Dairy UK director general, said: “Everyone across the UK, in industry and government, agrees that the voluntary code is the best way forward for the industry.”
Farm minister David Heath has agreed to consider legislation should the code not be implemented.
Keep up with the latest news on the milk price crisis