DEMONSTRATIONS against the recent price cuts suffered by Britain’s dairy farmers will begin by 1 August unless the processors back down.
At one of the largest farming gatherings seen for years, Meurig Raymond, deputy president of the NFU of England and Wales, made the statement, while addressing the 2,500 dairy farmers from all parts of the UK who had squeezed into the Central Hall at Westminster. He also said that, unless a voluntary code of conduct between the various links in the milk supply chain was agreed quickly, then the union would demand the UK government legislated for a compulsory code.
After listening to Raymond, and generally having a most uncomfortable afternoon, UK farm minister Jim Paice said he would do all he could to bring the code into being. Another meeting yesterday morning, he said, had brought it within “a whisker” of being settled.
He could not reveal the sticking points that remained but several farmers claimed that the big processors were still reluctant to sign up to a deal which, the farmers hoped, would bring fairness into the milk supply chain. Paice repeated previous warnings about bringing in a compulsory code but this cut as little ice with the farmers as did his stated inability to do anything about either the price processors were paying for liquid milk or the retailers for the price they were charging for the end product.
He was heckled and booed several times during his address to the meeting.
Explaining the position with the supermarkets, he said: “We live in a free enterprise society. I cannot make them set prices. I have absolutely no powers to do so.”
However, he did say he believed that, if the retailers did listen to dairy farmers’ concerns about the share of the milk price, then that would be a step forward.
Unfortunately for Paice, no representatives from either the major supermarkets or the processors were at the meeting, where repeated examples of the consequences of the latest price cuts were given.
In a rabble-rousing speech, David Handley from Farmers For Action warned that, unless there was a reversal of the price cuts, there would be no milk industry in the future.
Stephen James was one of a large Welsh contingent – who had left early yesterday after carrying out the morning milking – and he estimated that the price cuts were the equivalent of taking £80 million out of the country. He added that, less than ten years ago, there were 3,100 dairy farmers in the principality but now that number was down to 1,900.
Paice suggested that dairy farmers had to look to their own costs to ensure they were trimmed as much as possible. This was met initially by a chorus of boos and then, following a direct riposte from David Wilkinson from Welshpool, who claimed he was insulted by the suggestion, Paice apologised.
Paice was also pinned back by a question from a young dairy producer from Cornwall who asked how the minister would reply to the young farmer’s wife when she asked when the industry would be profitable. Around 50 Scottish producer made the long trip south and one of them, Gary Mitchell, NFU Scotland’s milk chairman, appealed for all dairy farmers who were unhappy with their supply contacts to tear them up.
The meeting also followed the Scottish union’s move earlier this week in asking dairy farmers to support producer organisations to help give them more marketing muscle in future.