Rory Christie: What’s that got to do with the price of milk? A lot when you are working together

The price of milk is a big issue for many dairy farmers across the globe and the fight to ensure fair value has been well documented for many years.

Rory Christie, Dairy Farmer, Wigtownshire

In the UK, I have witnessed dairy farmers protesting outside supermarkets, pleading with politicians and cursing the fact they are forced to sell milk for less than the cost of production.

My family business suffered in the 2015 dairy crisis which saw ­supply and demand severely out of balance and prices fall. Throughout it all I remained firm in my belief that old school aggressive relationships achieve little. The inequalities in the dairy supply chain need to be addressed by developing trust, solving disputes and building collaboration. Looking at the situation, I was keen to address the instability of the returns made by dairy farmers in my part of Scotland. I believed farmers could make their voices heard more coherently and collaboratively, so I approached the Scottish ­Agricultural Organisation Society to help form the Milk Suppliers Association (MSA).

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Born in 2013, the MSA is a co-operative made up of 131 dairy farmers throughout the south-west. Collectively we supply approximately 210 million litres of milk a year to the Caledonian Creamery in Stranraer, which is owned by Lactalis.

Lactalis, a leading global dairy ­business and the largest European milk processor, is the number one cheese manufacturer in the world, and the European leader in the milk, butter and cream markets. The milk supplied to the Stranraer ­creamery is turned into cheese, and sold across Britain under the brands Seriously Strong, Galloway and McLelland.

Until 2012, farmers selling to Caledonian Creamery acted on an informal basis with a board of invited farmers acting as a liaison ­committee. The initiative to create the MSA, led by myself and other local farmers, was very much ­supported by Lactalis. The MSA is now an officially constituted co-operative and we have an elected board of directors to act on behalf of members. Collaboration is our ethos, genuinely working together to solve problems, understand needs and ­create wins for both sides.

It would be easy for the group to come across as a combative crowd of farmers, but our main focus is to ensure all members are represented professionally and with the highest level of competence. If it’s something you’re not experienced with, dealing with a big company individually can be very daunting.

That’s why a collaborative approach is best as it allows us to develop the necessary expertise and bring external qualified help when it is needed. My background, as a dairy farmer first and foremost, but also as someone trained in negotiation (by John Sturrock QC, founder and CEO of Core, and Scotland’s leading commercial mediator) has meant that collaboration is always at the heart of what the MSA does.

The MSA aims to act in the best interest of its members, provide a forum to discuss issues and needs, and deliver long-term profitability for member businesses. It’s about giving a voice back to the farmer, essential in today’s volatile market.

In addition, members require access to the latest market information, as well as opportunities to get involved in new projects and innovation. The MSA supports these ­activities. Regular meetings with ­Lactalis and other industry stakeholders ensures ongoing communication and this is vital to our success.

Although the group has come a long way, it’s always looking to improve, and diversity is key to the future. There are currently six men on the board, but recruiting female ­members is a big goal to ensure not only fair representation, but also a new perspective. Younger board members will help guarantee ­support and continuity for future generations.

The group is also having a wider effect – helping to underpin the brand integrity of Scottish dairy farming. By ensuring the 131 members’ businesses stay strong, the MSA is contributing to the diversity of south-west Scotland’s economy which, without agriculture, would be less robust.

Promoting and retaining the heritage of dairy farming, as well as endorsing the end product, means there can be a future for the industry. As part of the biggest employment sector in Dumfries and Galloway, it is essential that the outlook for agriculture is positive. Seeing the hard work that the MSA carries out, and knowing that it contributes to the future of the industry, is what makes it such a success. It underlines how key communication is – something that doesn’t always come easy to those working in an isolated profession like agriculture.

But if you think there’s something you can do to create change, or even just to offer support, it’s worth putting the idea out there. You never know what it might become, and the influence collaboration can have, until you try.

Rory Christie, dairy farmer, ­Wigtownshire.