Central Hall Westminster was packed last Wednesday afternoon when 2,500 dairy farmers from across the country gathered to show their solidarity against those dairy processors who propose to take up to 2p off the price paid for a litre of British milk.
A Voluntary Code of Practice for contracts has been some time in the making and on Wednesday it was said agreement was needed on three words to finalise it, with both sides "conceding a lot". Many were calling for legislation to make pricing fair. Agricultural Minister Jim Paice MP felt this would not happen. A call for the return of the Milk Marketing Board style body was rejected too, and emotions were running high.
Mr Paice had gone shopping that day and he brought to the podium a pint of milk for which he paid 49p, and a pint of bottled water for which he paid 53p, clearly demonstrating that something is wrong somewhere.
I sat in front of a dairy farming family from Derbyshire; the farmer and his wife and their two sons of just six and seven years of age. The parents, well aware that the boys’ hopes to grow up and continue the family farming tradition were at risk, deemed this crisis summit urgent enough that their sons should know what was going on, and they sat as good as gold throughout the whole of the proceedings.
The WI continues to stand by dairy farmers and has actively done so since 2005 when members voted on a resolution to "urge WI members to do all in their power to raise public awareness of the unfair difference between the retail prices of milk and the price paid to farmers". The WI's Great Milk Debates across the country did indeed raise that awareness, and in the years since we have seen some progress with more retailers establishing dedicated relationships with the dairy farmers that supply them with fresh milk. Yet this progress has not gone far enough. Time and time again, we see the same cycle of farmers losing money on every litre of milk that they produce. This tells me that the supply chain is failing to function properly. All parts of the supply chain stand to benefit from maintaining a profitable, productive and healthy dairy industry, yet as events over the past two weeks have again shown us, the balance is wrong. This problem was an issue the WI took up again in our 2010 Mission Milk campaign with the NFU. Now yet again, we are getting behind our dairy farmers.
It is a very sad truth that dairy farms have been closed across the country in high numbers in recent years: producer numbers for England and Wales stood at 10,724 in May 2012; a fall of 172 or 1.6% over the last 12 months. Since 2000, the number of UK dairy farmers has literally halved. The Derbyshire farmer told me he thought he had about another six months for "things to pick up" before the bank came knocking at his door.
The British public has to get behind these dairy farmers. Their herds produce liquid milk of a quality and hygiene standard higher than in any other country and of course there is a growing demand for British, local, quality, assured and traceable food; for products that consumers can trust and support. With fewer dairy farmers the risk that this will lead to less product choice is very real. Our farmers are custodians of the countryside who provide work for many more industries such as veterinary practices, animal feeds, engineering and more. And indeed, these industries were also represented at the summit; both in solidarity with the dairy industry but also in fear for their own.
As consumers we can all play a role in encouraging retailers and processors to step up to the challenge and do the right thing by British dairy farmers. Do take a look at the NFWI website to see what you can do to help.