Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Let's get the London Milk March right!

Milk:  the on-going farming crisis

The presentation of the current dairying crisis needs planning and presentation. This article outlines what needs to be done by farming leaders, and the marchers in London. Dairy farmers need a better deal. But to get it they will need convincing arguments, a compelling presentation of the facts, and friends in high places. 

The hope is that the march will include these, as well as the passion and noise. 

The performance of farming leaders on Radio 4's 'Today' last week was seriously unconvincing

The Today Programme presenter John Humphrys is sympathetic to the dairy farmer's cause. For some years he had a dairy farm himself in Carmarthenshire,
and so knows the score. In last week's programme he interviewed three leaders - David Handley of the Farmers' Action Group, Peter Kendall, President of the NFU, and Ian Potter, guru and quota dealer. None from the buyers, or from supermarkets.  The farmers had the microphone to themselves.

In their ten minutes they were less than convincing. Handley talked about civil disruption, and mentioned the Olympics - hardly a sympathy winning argument. Kendall talked about the 2p/litre price cut, which to anyone buying milk at 80p a litre wouldn't seem to horrific. He discussed the intricacies of contracts, and much was made of the fact that Asda and Morrisons did not have a cost plus contract. He then went on to talk about the effects of adverse weather, of cows being housed when they would normally be at grass.  Ian Potter was allowed little time as so much was spent in explaining how the contract system worked, but he did manage to stress the seriousness of the situation. 

The interview lacked strategy, and each participant had failed to work out what needed to be said and, as importantly, what didn't need including.

How it should have been presented.

Price changes need to be expressed as percentages. 2p sounds like nothing. 17% is significant. 

Price levels need explaining. My tweet of the 6th July said: " #milkpricecuts Farming unions speaking with one voice at last. May it continue. I got 24p in 1994 and would need 35p today" It says more, in less than 140 characters. 

The milk march will need to get the message over in as simple a way, and farming leaders must begin to realise that the population is increasingly seeing farmers as:
1. high wealth individuals with entitlements that provide them with tax payers money
2. businesses which are proofed against economic downturn, with an increasing stake in energy provision as well as food
3. custodians of a countryside which they control for their shooting and fishing rights

The public need to know that milk price cuts will have a long term effect on the supply of dairy products to Britain. They contribute significantly to the national diet, provide the population with a good deal of their calcium and vitamin D, essential for health. It is not for nothing that milk is provided free to schools. The public need reminding that the British dairy herd is closely monitored for disease, that the milk sold is unadulterated, correctly treated, and has a long shelf life in comparison to imported milk simply because on-farm conditions are so clean. They need to be aware of their responsibilities in the management of cows and livestock, the correct use of drugs and the humane and compassionate management and handling of animals. 

The public do not need to know that the wet weather, which they all dislike, is costing farmers money, as it is doing the same for many in other industries. Selling summer clothes this year has been near impossible, as is shown by the latest figures from M&S. Many other businesses have been affected: tour operators, caravan and chalets, boats and any form of outdoor leisure is hit hard when the weather is poor. Other farmers face losses, some total, where their crops have been decimated by flooding. Neither does the public need to understand the hardship, depression, and other problems of those in the industry. Dairy farming is a free choice, nobody forced anyone to be a dairy farmer. 

The details of individual supermarket contracts are too complex to fully explain in a few minutes.

The milk march could be a useful tool for farmers to get some fairness in the market they supply. It needs to have a goal, a reasonable demand that will put the situation right. But it must be done intelligently, with the right arguments, the right level of passion, and with none of the antagonistic threats of David Handley, who will inflame but not inform. 

Dairy farmers work hard. They're out of bed before 5am, well before most of the population, and many days they'll still be in the yard at 8.00pm.  I know - I had my own 60 cow herd for 20+ years. It's a good life, but you don't want to be ill, don't need long holidays, (if any at all), and need to be content with a second hand car and a life with few trimmings. 

A modestly profitable life was enjoyed by dairy farmers throughout the Milk Marketing Board period from 1933 to 1985 - not so dissimilar to the free-for-all situation today. The MMB came into being in 1933 because milk buyers had dairy farmers around their little fingers. The dairy trade paid what they could get away with, and had any number of ploys that reduced the farmers' payment. The MMB fixed the ex-farm price with annual agreements between the Dairy Trade, for the buyers; the NFU, for the producers; and the Ministry, for consumers, and the farm gate price was fair to all sides. Milk was not as cheap in some other countries, but the supply, and quality was assured, and the ancilliary industries around dairying, such as cattle breeding, machinery, management etc, were is a position to develop and grow.

The UK dairy industry, post MMB, has lurched from crisis to crisis, culminating in the milk march in London on July 11.  The farm gate prices has sunk to equal that in the mid 1990s, when I sold my cows. Dairy farmers have hang on by living off their Single Farm Payment (the taxpayer subsidy); by holding off re-investment; by continually cutting budgets; and by planning their exits. Selling your dairy herd is not easy. Apart from the emotion of selling animals you have reared from birth, and probably their mothers as well, a dairy farm is not so easy to convert to other agricultural uses. The buildings and equipment are designed and built to keep cows, not fattening cattle, pigs, sheep r to store corn. 

1 comment:

  1. Adrian Marsh7:02 am

    I find it impossible to believe that the buyers want to lose UK milk suppliers. Surely they don't want to rely on imported milk with the transport costs and shelf life being shorter. Why then can't the NFU leaders not call for a milk contract in place where collectively the price and contract wording is agreed by professional contract negotiators at national level > individual farmers should be banned from negotiating on an individual basis ( undermining / undrcutting any work done at a natioanl level) Remember the large dairys have professionals negotiating on their behalf who can and know how to get a good deal for themselves.
    If dairy farming involves selling milk at or below the cost of production and the only likely profit comes from selling barren cows and the dairy herd's calves and farm subsidy then everyone should get a suckler herd. You'll have the same profit, no milking and still have a herd of cattle