SOS Dairy: Farmers end 2012 with heads held high

Farm protests came rushing into the internet age during 2012 – a year many dairy producers will remember with pride despite a series of vicious milk price cuts that threatened to drive hundreds of families out of business.

This was a game-changing 12 months. It was a year when farmers stood together and said “no more” rather than being brought to their knees by price-slashing dairy processors. And milk producers end 2012 with their heads held high.

A 2p/litre milk price cut in spring had already plunged many farmers deep into the red. A second round of cuts in early summer meant producers faced receiving less than 25p/litre for milk that cost 30p to produce. Farms that were barely profitable were left staring at annual losses of £50,000 each.

Within days of the second cut, 600 farmers gathered at the Staffordshire Showground to vent their anger. One way or another, something had to give. And this time it wasn’t going to be the farmers.

The dairy crisis – what happened when and where

27 APRIL: Milk processors announce a 2p/litre cut in farmgate prices, giving farmers just four days’ notice of their introduction on 1 May.

11 MAY: Farming ministers in England and Scotland call for a robust code of practice to improve the balance of power between retailers, processors and suppliers.

4 JULY: 500 farmers meet at Staffordshire showground after Arla, Wiseman and Dairy Crest announce price cuts of 1.65p-2p/litre from 1 August.

6 JULY: Coalition of farming unions and Farmers for Action meets for first time. Demand immediate reversal of milk price cuts imposed on farmers since 1 April.

11 JULY: More than 2,500 farmers gather in London for emergency summit meeting. Repeat demands for reversal of price cuts and warn direct action will result if 1 August deadline is not met.

14-19 JULY: Farmers’ protests scale up. Thousands carry out well-organised and peaceful protests at strategic production and distribution sites. Consumer sympathy adds to sense of solidarity and purpose. Asda announces 1p price rise.

20-22 JULY: Retailers Co-op and Morrisons announce increases in prices as nightly protests continue across the UK.

23 JULY: Dairy processors and farmers agree on the principles of a dairy code of practice following a three-hour meeting at the Royal Welsh Show. Asda agrees to up premium it pays to 5p/litre.

26 JULY: Protests continue. Dairy Crest, First Milk and then Arla announce plans to withdraw planned 1 August price cut. Focus of attention shifts to Wiseman plants

27 JULY: Wiseman announces withdrawal of 1 August price cuts after night of hundreds protests at its depots.

28 JULY: Dairy coalition suspends protests but says more still to be done.

30 JULY: 500 farmers from Scotland, England and Wales gather at Lanark Market. NFU Scotland announces creation of umbrella organisation, Dairy Farmers Together, backed by £100,000 from Scottish government.

3 SEPTEMBER: Dairy code of practice is agreed by processors retailers and the coalition of farm industry groups but lawyers continue to pore over the legal details.

3 OCTOBER: Dairy code of practice published with renewed calls for its swift implementation.

Blame for the cuts was put on processors who had undercut one another in their eagerness to sell milk at knock-down prices. This was fine while low milk prices could be offset by high cream prices. But then cream prices collapsed.

In a bid to minimise losses, processors slashed farmgate milk prices. Then they did it again, leaving farmers locked into loss-making contracts for the next 12 months. Processors might have got away with the first cut. But the second just looked plain greedy.

Farming frustration snowballed. A week after the Staffordshire meeting, more than 2,500 milk producers descended on London for an emergency summit at Central Hall, Westminster – creating a springboard for action that saw farming families join forces across the UK.

Their demands were simple: a full reversal of both price cuts and the introduction of a fairer pricing system – including a code of practice – that would help to secure a sustainable long-term future for the British dairy industry.

Dubbed SOS Dairy, the battle was fought on three fronts: on the streets, behind closed doors and online. This was the first major grass-roots farming campaign to harness the full power of the internet to its full advantage.

Social media websites, including Twitter and Facebook, brought milk producers together, as well as bringing farmers’ plight to the wider public. It meant protests could be organised quickly, with processors and supermarkets named and shamed online.

Night after night, hundreds of farmers blockaded dairy processors the length of the country. From Somerset to Scotland, protests organised by Farmers For Action acted as an outward show of strength while NFU leaders held price talks with milk buyers.

Supermarkets and processors deemed to be paying unfair milk prices were carefully selected – the next protest was often arranged by a chain of communication that involved word of mouth, mobile phone messages, email and the internet.

Farmers who had swapped stories and thoughts online greeted each other like old friends at protests – even though many had only met until then online. Photos and videos posted by farmers on websites were often used in news reports by the mainstream media.

More than 800 people added an SOS Dairy ribbon to their Twitter profile picture. Hundreds more showed their support on Facebook, and printed out posters to take to the next protest. An #SOSDairy hashtag was used thousands of times.

Buoyed by grass-roots support, farm groups set aside their differences to form a coalition for the greater good. Until SOS Dairy, few people thought they would see NFU president Peter Kendall share a platform with Farmers For Action chairman David Handley.

But the coalition was about more than bringing together the NFU and FFA. The membership included NFU Scotland, NFU Cymru, the Royal Association of British Dairy Farmers, Tenant Farmers Association and the Women’s Food and Farming Union.

This was an industry united. As well as farmers, SOS Dairy brought together everyone who relied on farmers for their livelihoods – from feed suppliers and machinery dealers to vets, agricultural lawyers and farm business consultants.

Major supermarkets were the first to back down, announcing fairer prices for farmers who supplied them direct. Processors gradually backed down, too – although much more slowly – abandoning the second price cut and agreeing to abide by a code of conduct to treat farmers fairly.

There is a long way to go. After a dismal summer, this winter will be hard. Farmgate milk prices remain too low and any rise has already been more than offset by increases in the cost of farm inputs, including feed and forage. Milk prices must rise further still.

But the success of SOS Dairy shouldn’t be underestimated. It worked because ordinary farmers showed they were no longer prepared to see their livelihoods taken away. And they protested in a way that captured the public imagination – and won consumer support.

SOS Dairy wasn’t about asking shoppers to pay more for milk, it was about farmers getting a fair price from processors and retailers. We should remember that. Protests outside supermarkets and blockades of dairy processors were peaceful and in good humour. We should remember that, too.

Despite the temptation to pour milk down the drain, few farmers did so. It was a wise decision that helped keep a recession-hit public on side at a time of rising food prices. The subtext was clear: milk is valuable, not worthless. It is a message worth repeating.

Protest song becomes online hit

A video that became an internet hit during the SOS Dairy campaign has now been viewed more than 21,000 times.

It happened after agricultural lawyer Oliver Wilson, of Nigel Davis Solicitors, asked his musician brother Toby to write a protest song highlighting the plight of dairy producers.

“My brother called me and said it would be good fun to write a song about the dairy protests,” said Toby, also known as the Dobro Doctor. “I wrote the first version of my song pretty quickly after drinking a couple of beers. It was much angrier, but I toned it down and added some humour.

Footage filmed at the dairy protests was then used to turn the song into a three-minute YouTube video. Once uploaded to the internet, the video quickly went viral, with thousands of people watching it.

The popularity of the video meant Toby was soon approached to perform the song on BBC Radio – enabling him to spread the farming message to a much wider audience and help keep the SOS Dairy campaign in the pubic eye.

“Writing and recording the song really opened my eyes to what has been going on in the dairy sector. I hope it had some sort of positive effect on the campaign.”

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