‘Milk price battle has been won but what of the war?’

It’s a while since I produced milk, so I have deliberately kept a low profile this summer as farmers’ organisations and dairy farmers have come together in what has been dubbed a “coalition” to fight for their future.

The description is perhaps unfortunately timed as it coincides with another bearing the same name that is beginning to be discredited in the corridors of power. But the truly united activities at Central Hall, Westminster, and dairies and supermarkets up and down the country have been admirable for the peacefulness of the protests and what they appear to have achieved.

It shows the influence small producers can have on huge conglomerates and governments if they join together. The only sadness is it took ex-farm prices to drop so low and losses to become so high before the worm turned.

It was the sincerity and desperation of those attending these gatherings that registered most strongly with consumers. At first, many could not believe milk was being produced on farms at a loss. But gradually, through the use by the coalition of every possible means of contacting their ultimate customers – including social media – the facts were accepted and the affair became a public relations triumph that wholesalers and retailers of milk realised they could not ignore.

At least that was the case with most. A few diehards held out and refused to reverse planned price cuts for milk. They won’t be able to maintain that stance once contracts become fairer to producers – because dairy farmers will not sign up to supply them again.

But the main concern worrying dairymen now is how long it will be before hostilities begin again. For although producers might have won this battle, few would claim it to be the end of the war. Most milk buyers have imposed a time limit on their suspension of price cuts and there is still a surplus of cream dragging down world market values.

I don’t remember it ever being necessary to blockade MMB dairies.
David Richardson
In other words, the present stand-off is probably temporary rather than permanent.

Proposals are being put forward to try to bring about a more equitable relationship between milk producers and milk buyers, long term. DEFRA minister Jim Paice has been trying to broker a voluntary code between both parties that might avoid a repetition of recent experience.

Farmers unions and other coalition members are promoting producer organisations that would bring together dairy farmers to negotiate with milk buyers collectively on behalf of groups of producers – always provided EU regulations don’t forbid them as monopoly sellers. Similar arrangements exist in other EU member states, although in most cases the milk buyers are themselves co-operatives.

I can’t help thinking it sounds like the structure we used to know and love when we sold to the Milk Marketing Board. Members of the board were elected to represent their region at headquarters. We had regional committees of milk producers from every county to keep an eye on the board and ensure fair treatment around the country. The product was promoted to consumers in an organised, effective way – not by price cutting in supermarkets. And I don’t remember it ever being necessary to blockade MMB dairies.

I was convinced then and still believe today the MMB should have been converted into a co-operative to match those in Europe. If that had happened we might have been spared the heartache of recent weeks.

David Richardson farms about 400ha (1,000 acres) of arable land near Norwich in Norfolk in partnership with his wife, Lorna. His son, Rob, is farm manager.

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