The Clitheroe Advertiser & Times 30.9.10
Your “As I See It” article by Kathleen Calvert is a stark warning of the problems facing British Dairying.
The issue of food security has never been paid so much lip service than in recent times and unless we begin to address the issue we will find ourselves at the behest of exporting nations with regard to supply and price.
The problem when we become reliant on imported food is we can only dance to the tune that is called. As a nation we now import one million litres of milk a day (about 5% of our usage) due to a number of factors; sometimes foreign processors offer great discounts which retailers cannot resist and sometimes we just don’t have the producers that we once had with their regular daily supply.
An average of 14 dairy farms a week have come out of, or retired from milk production over the past two years. No one can blame a small producer milking 80 cows with ever increasing costs, regulations and workloads for seeing no future in the dairy industry when at best you may just break even every month; the only way to increase margins being to cut costs and that is very difficult when overheads just increase and milk price is set by the purchaser.
Milking at 5 a.m. and 5 p.m. 365 days of the year in a cold parlour with all the pressures wintering animals can bring and with little or no reward, it is easy to see why so many have gone. This one-time backbone of UK Dairying is crumbling fast and once these small family units have gone they will never come back. Just counting our neighbouring farms we know of six that have left dairying recently.
Just as Kathleen points out about the economies of scale allowing the big boys in processing to discount milk to ridiculous levels, the distribution of wealth for milk favours heavily the retailer and the processor with the producer getting offered what is left.
Most farms are producing milk at a loss (if we had to factor in wages for ourselves at a minimum wage we would not be here past the end of the month), while most retailers who contract milk direct from a processor retain a massive 18p to 21p per litre profit, and this has seen a 20% increase in the past year alone. Where it becomes less transparent is with the processor, but the average retention is still 23p per litre.
Farmers are forced to give up or intensify (to the detriment of the animal in many cases) making economies of scale the only way to achieve a return at all. The answer is not to mass produce and factory farm, nor intensify to an unsustainable level, but to give fair trade to farmers who if they were in a developing country would be protected under Fair Trade rules.
We have cut our costs to the bone and no flesh remains and now the retailers must surrender some of their profit or we might just see a large stainless steel pipe emerging from the Channel Tunnel! The retailers need to be regulated by an ombudsman with real power, which in turn must be funded by the big supermarkets to help ensure the remaining dairy farms are paid a true value for their milk and they are given the chance of a future.
Whatever the farm system – whether it be organic, biodynamic, conventional, niche or otherwise – a fair price reflecting true product value must be paid; to not be food secure is suicide, to be held to ransom for our daily bread would cause unthinkable problems and we cannot allow food to follow this path.
One final staggering statistic is that we now import 41.1% of all the food we eat and this has not been as high since 1968. Farmers need to stand together and put differences of opinion aside to ensure we have a voice that will be heard and retailers need to take a responsible and sustainable stance before its too late.
IAN O’REILLY, Gazegill Organics, Rimington