I have represented a rural constituency for over twenty years and I enjoy nothing more than showing people around my beautiful green and lush constituency and explaining to them that this does not happen naturally, and that farming in my area is largely responsible for our green and pleasant land.
This amazing surroundings though are just a by-product of what farmers do, and in my area we have rather a large number of dairy farmers.
I have spoken to many farmers over the years and learnt that their job is almost like no other. It is more than a labour of love, it is about being at one with nature and producing something that most of us consume every day of our lives. We are weaned on milk from birth and it is with us till the end.
What is clear though is that their industry is under attack. The losers will be the dairy men in the first instance, and then all of us. I, for one, am not going to sit idly by. They are being held to ransom by those buying their milk, and in many cases the amount of money being paid for the product is below the price of production. I wasn’t brilliant at maths at school, but I see it like this – farmers lose money for every pint they sell. It is totally unsustainable and it must be reversed now.
The number of dairy cows has dropped by 140,000 over five years as farms close or merge. The number of dairy farms in 1996 was about 35,000. And today the number is barely 14,000. This is an appalling state of affairs.
It takes a lot to get farmers riled, but the latest round of cuts of 2p a litre, followed by the announcement of another cut of 2p is strangling the very life out of this vital industry. Some people are getting the fat of the milk whilst the producers are treated worse than serf labourers.
It also takes a lot to get the Womens’ Institute riled, although Tony Blair managed it famously. They are on the war path again, this time against exploitation of our farmers. They are protesting outside certain supermarkets where milk is being sold more cheaply than water or beer.
Farmers have faced huge increases in the price of vet fees, feedstuffs, and labour. The cost of production is about 30p a pint and so when farmers get paid less than that it is not economic sense. They have never made much out of milk over the past few years, but all of a sudden the price the wholesales and supermarkets are prepared to pay has dropped and is dropping again.
We are all in this together, yes, but customers will not want to see farmers being treated in this way in order that they might benefit a couple of pence off a pint at the checkout.
I opened a newspaper on Friday and gasped as I saw an advert from Asda proudly announcing milk at £1 for four pints. They should be ashamed of themselves. The chairman and chief executives of our supermarkets earn six figure salaries, and some seven figures. No doubt they deserve high salaries, but do they not question for a single moment that the farmers supplying a draw commodity in their shops deserve a living wage.
Have they never questioned once why it is that they can sell milk for less than production. This is a commodity that gets the customer into their store on a regular basis and yet they boast that they can sell a pint for 25 pence. It is truly shocking.
It is bad enough trying to get new entrants into farming as it is. It is not the easiest of jobs and it can be really lonely at times. The days of farmers looking out over their fields to the lights of neighbouring farms is diminishing fast as farmers quit in their droves. Who can blame them. There is easier money to be made working for a supermarket stacking the shelves than there is supplying milk on those shelves.
If we want a future for the industry then we have to raise our voices now. If the chairmen, chief executive and buyers for the supermarkets have any decency they will look at their policy of buying milk and ask themselves how ethical it is.
I want supermarkets to behave responsibly to this industry and with total transparency. I want them to guarantee to us that they will not buy a single drop of milk below the price that it is produced at. I want to know that I am not contributing to the downfall of one of our most loved and traditional industries.
I know that milk cannot be produced at 25p a pint so, dear Asda, don't boast that you can sell it for that. Fairtrade products abound in supermarkets these days because they know savvy consumers will not tolerate African or Indian cocoa producers, or tea producers being used as colonial slaves in order that western consumers can enjoy a munch on a chocolate bar for a few pence cheaper.
So, the message is clear. We want a fair trade for ALL dairy farmers in this country. We want to see the worst behaving retailers operating to the level of the best, and fortunately not all supermarkets are acting in the fashion of the worst. Some supermarkets have an ethical milk buying policy.
A price war on milk will kill the producers first, and this must stop now. Will all major milk suppliers sign the pledge. They will not be part of the destruction of our dairy industry, and they will purchase 100 % of their milk on their shelves at above cost price.
Lets have a real bargain for consumers. A healthy dairy industry supplying an amazingly good product, fresh every day to the shelves at a price that sustains the supplier, and enriches our countryside and country.
If this cannot be done on a voluntary basis then other action must follow. If we cant get a fair price for milk then a fixed price must be looked at. I really hope this will not be necessary, but if it is needed to save this industry then action must be taken and action must be taken fast!