Comment: No room for errors in dairy’s battle – even funny errors
If YOU want to know what gets journalistic pulses racing and adrenalin levels soaring, it is breaking news. One example: last Tuesday, on the eve of milk producers gathering en masse in London to protest price cuts imposed by milk processors, I received an e-mail.
It came from the Scottish Government press office and the first line from Richard Lochhead, rural affairs minister, stated: “I would like to wish the milk processors well at tomorrow’s meeting and rally.”
I read the line once and then read it again to make sure I was reading it correctly, because here was an official statement supporting the price reduction imposed on the dairy farmers.
It was contrary to all previous views from the minister and that made it potentially headline news.
For all those dairy farmers about to get on buses, trains and planes to London to protest about the cuts, it was a real slap in the face.
I checked my e-mail inbox again and there was another missive from the government publicity machine.
This one apologised for the “deliberate mistake” in the earlier one. The politician wanted to wish the “producers well” at the rally; so a potentially humdinger of a story turned out to be human error.
As the agricultural press is, on the whole, a pretty evenhanded bunch no-one pretended they had just received the first e-mail and ran with that version.
At this point, I confess an error of my own and that was last week I suggested that the protest meeting of milk producers held in Lanark on Monday might be a damp squib.
Far from that being the case, there was a real feeling of change in the air.
No, it was more suppressed anger and anger not just at others – although there was a lot of that. Anger at themselves for trustingly signing contracts that were more one-sided than they had calculated.
Now, when organising a meeting, rule one is always to work out what outcome you want lest the event goes off the rails.
NFU Scotland had obviously read the book on “meeting management”.
So, after a couple of hours during which producers let off steam about the situation they are in, the union produced forms asking if they would support the possibility of setting up producer organisations to strengthen their hand in negotiations with the big buyers.
The farmers then went back to the afternoon milking happy they had done something, although one cynic on the press table wondered if some knew what precisely it was.
Contrast this with the much bigger protest meeting held two days later in London, when the English union’s planning did not seem to go beyond staging the event. The people were there and after 90 minutes of letting off steam, they were looking for direction but direction came there none and the meeting petered out.
In fact, the one memory of the meeting for many who attended was the fumbling of UK minister Jim Paice.
Some of his aides should have told the politician that the gathered masses had not come hundreds of miles to hear homilies on how big the market in China could be for processed dairy products nor to be told they should check out their own costs.
Paice did stress that he was doing all he could to bring the voluntary code of practice to fruition, but by then he had lost a lot of support.
So, where now with only a fortnight before we reach the deadline where processors will have to rescind their planned price cuts or face the wrath of “peaceful demonstrations?”
Now, remembering my track record on predictions, I cannot see the major buyers capitulating.
Will they come out and, in a face-saving way, say: “Oops, we made a mistake. We can, after all, afford to pay producers and we will also give them back the money we have taken off them since the last price cut”?
Another version might be: “We made an error in thinking the producers were a bunch of softies, we will give them as much money as they want.”
I do not think either of those messages will come zinging through my e-mail box and if they do, they will be closely followed by another saying “deliberate mistake”.
I applaud Lochhead for setting up the milk summit next week and hope it is successful but there is a lot to do to make the milk supply industry more robust than it is at present.
So, I would not be surprised to see milk being spilled as farmers who now have their dander up try to regain some marketing muscle.
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Sunday 19 May 2013
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