24 March 2000

Snubbed grass-roots men

set up own protest group

By FWreporters

ORDINARY farmers have formed a co-ordinated protest group amid fears that industry leaders will fail to secure a better deal for agriculture at next weeks meeting with Prime Minister Tony Blair.

The farmers claim they have been shut out of the Downing Street summit which will take place next Thurs (Mar 30). They claim they are poorly represented by the main farm unions and have embarked on a series of high-profile protests across the country against low farm prices under the name, Farmers For Action.

The group was formed at a meeting at a motorway service station outside Birmingham attended by farmers from Wales, the Midlands, the West Country and the north of England. It aims to draw together producers who feel that their voices are not being heard by either the government or the main farm unions.

West Country farmer Derek Mead, who has emerged as chief spokesman for the group, said meetings with the NFU over the past three years had achieved nothing. He added: "Things are desperate. The NFU should be taking desperate action, not dining with supermarkets and discussing things irrelevant to todays crisis. We need money in our bank accounts now not in five years."

The formation of the group came during a week that saw a sudden increase in the number of farm protests. In Scotland, about 100 farmers protested outside the East Kilbride headquarters of Robert Wiseman Dairies, the firm that now controls about 80% of Scotlands liquid milk market.

In Wales, Farmers for Action invited the local mayor to watch them spread milk from six slurry tankers at Red House Farm near Newtown, Powys. Organisers believed the presence of Councillor Bob Davey would guarantee coverage of their protest in non-farming newspapers and on local radio.

Paul Pritchard, a smallholder from Wales, said: "Farmers are fed up with hearing that the NFU and FUW are holding meetings that achieve nothing. We have proved that direct action brings results, which is why prominent members of both unions are here today."

The farmers are calling for guaranteed base prices for a range of farm products, including milk, meat and cereals. Despite its popularity with grass-root producers, however, they have been refused entry to next weeks summit with Tony Blair. Downing Street officials believe the government can negotiate successfully with all farmers if only the main farm unions and a handful of other bodies attend.

That view has angered Cornwall farmer Michael Hart, chairman of the Small and Family Farmers Association. Mr Hart distanced himself from the Farmers for Action group but said he too had been shut out of the Downing Street summit.

He is now organising an alternative summit to be held on the same day as the Downing Street meeting for smaller producers and Opposition MPs.

Action speaks louder than words, claim farmers who dumped milk again in Wales (left) and took to the streets of Newcastle in a bid to highlight the worsening crisis in agriculture.