As I write, we are supposedly mere days away from agreeing a Brexit trade deal, the prime minister is in coronavirus isolation again, and George Eustice’s crass comments on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show suggest the government’s thinking has barely moved forward since 2016.
It feels like Groundhog Day – I just want it to end, but I’ve still got no idea what that will actually mean for my business, or the rest of the country.
“No deal” feels scarily possible, but Mr Eustice glibly tells us that it will all be fine. Mixed beef and sheep farmers can “diversify” into beef (I think he has misunderstood the meaning of diversify, as one Twitter user pointed out, and I’ve no idea how this helps hill farmers).
According to Mr Esutice, 35% tariffs will have no effect on the dairy sector, as we are net importers and would apply the same tariffs on products coming in.
Companies like Arla would simply have to relocate production of products such as Lurpak to the UK – except, as Arla helpfully pointed out, their product is subject to legal protections that mean it must be made in Denmark. So Lurpak will either be very expensive or unavailable come 1 January if we don’t get a deal.
I just want it to end, but I’ve still got no idea what that will actually mean for my business, or the rest of the country
Isn’t that good news for British dairy farmers, as we will just displace the imported products with our own home-produced butter, cheese and yoghurt?
In the long term, hopefully, but that will require investment in brands and, more importantly, processing capacity, which doesn’t happen overnight. It requires stability in the market, which is currently lacking, unsurprisingly.
The first lockdown in the spring highlighted some of the challenges the dairy industry could face after Brexit, with surplus liquid milk, complex supply chains, and a sudden shift in consumer buying patterns. Overall, the sector coped remarkably well (although the farmers who had to dump milk and faced price cuts probably feel differently).
Prices held up, and supermarkets managed to service the sudden increase in demand for liquid milk, butter and cheese.
The AHDB’s Milk Your Moments campaign drove an increase in sales of 11.2m litres of milk, according to Kantar data. That is a fantastic result. But the campaign was designed to mitigate a short-term problem with excess liquid milk during the lockdown.
Consumer trends had been shifting away from liquid and towards manufactured dairy products, notably cheese, long before Covid-19.
It seems that Brexit will speed up a process that was already happening, creating an even more pressing need for increased dairy manufacturing capacity in the UK.
Adding value to our milk at home, and increasing the range of options for where and how it can be sold, can only add to the industry’s resilience.
Unfortunately, as a dairy farmer, this is something I personally have little or no control over, and it doesn’t seem like the government will be coming up with many helpful solutions either.
For the next few weeks, it feels as if the best thing I can do is turn off the TV, stop reading the news, and focus on making sure our business is running as efficiently as possible.
Hopefully, when I turn it back on in a few weeks’ time, Groundhog Day will finally be over and we can all move forward positively, with a clearer picture of what the future after Brexit might look like.