Famine or feast: counting the cost

Today’s UK headlines spread the gloom that the price of food is set to rise…..

This is because crops have failed catastrophically, almost everywhere: soft fruits have been mildewed; potatoes & tomatoes, blighted; & wheat, barley, oats & peas, battered to the ground by strong winds or flooded by torrential rains.  Thus we are told that the cost of staples such as bread will spiral; even meat prices are set to increase owing to escalating feed costs, which we ‘money-grabbing’ farmers are forced to pass on to the consumer in order to keep our own heads above water (although this season, with the unprecedented flooding, that last statement has been literally true).  

For example, farmers producing peas in the UK are already ‘feeling the pinch’ because they were forced to agree a price with their buyers before the crop was even in the ground; & now, despite wide-scale failure, the buyers have refused to budge & are instead turning their attentions to the global market.  However as the United States has suffered too, the price of the humble pea is set to skyrocket.  But the failure of our British pea crop, & the poor prices the producers have received, means that many farmers simply cannot afford to purchase sufficient seed to plant next years’ crop….& so will be forced out of business.  And that’s just peas.  It’s a similar story with other crops; a potato grower just over the mountain from us in Pembrokeshire, has already ‘hung up his boots’ in despair as he was effectively ‘turned over’ by one of the large supermarkets who promised to promote his organic, local produce – but then did nothing of the sort; this rank behaviour from an uncaring conglomerate, coupled with the poor crop yield owing to blight & bad weather, has forced him to give up what has literally been his life-long labour of love.

Ironically, whilst everyone seems to accept the price of meat will inevitably rise as part of the national crop failure’s ‘knock on’ effect, nothing (as ever) has been said about an increase in the cost of that most vital of staples – milk.  Dairy farmers have the same overheads (in fact, if you count the cost of milking parlours & associated equipment plus the additional labour required, more) as beef, sheep, & pig farmers; yet will inevitably be castigated if they dare to suggest an equivalent rise in price of the daily pint (despite the cost of milk having remained largely static compared with the cost of living, for a number of years now).  In broad terms, farm gate prices fell from 24.5p/litre to 18.5p/litre in the ten years from 1995-2005 (& the 2007 milk price has just dropped – yet again – to only 17p/litre), while processor gross margins increased by 8%, & retail gross margins rose tenfold from 3% to 28%.  During this time, many farmers have been forced to sell milk below the cost of production, only hanging on in the hope of better times ahead (although over supper the other evening, one of our dairy-farming neighbours said he had often contemplated giving up altogether, such is the almost unbearable, unremitting strain). 

In recent months there have been a few grand – but largely empty – gestures from some of the bigger milk brokers in an attempt to pacify their increasingly frustrated producers whilst being seen to ‘do the right thing’ thus dumbing down any adverse publicity.  But with the escalating cost of animal feed this year (& farmers don’t blame the producers who after all, who are farmers too – it’s been a hard year for the whole industry) it’s difficult to see how many of Britain’s hard-working dairy farmers can possibly carry on, without being given the backing of their brokers to support a decent milk price rise.  Will it happen?  Sadly, I doubt it.

So next time your settle down for a nice, relaxing cuppa, or pour yourself a refreshingly cool glass of  the ‘white’ stuff, spare a little thought for the (literally) poor farmer who has worked so hard to provide your pint.  If you really reflect & count the cost of what this important, natural source of food, vitamins & minerals, means to you, in comparison to annual expenditure of all the stuff you don’t really need; would you honestly object to an extra few pence being added to the cost of a simple litre of milk?  Because there’s a real danger that ‘home-grown’ milk may soon be a thing of the past if things don’t improve soon.  On average, three farms a day are currently going out of business: in 1995, there were 35,000 UK dairy farms whereas in 2007 there are only about 19,000 left.  Let’s put it into perspective: a litre of mineral water, costs the consumer around 80p.  A litre of milk (which is 84% water with the rest made up of life’s little essentials) costs you about 53p.  But whilst the cost of producing that milk has already risen by 8% over the past year & is set to escalate still further, the price paid to the producer has dropped by 8% over the same period – which, when you’re not a £31bn supermarket business, really hits you where it hurts.  Farmers could attempt to reduce overheads by resorting to more intensive, factory methods – but resist doing so, because they care about the cows with whom they work; they are animals, not machines to be driven relentlessly, 24/7. 

The consumers’ pastoral idyll of cattle contentedly grazing lush pastures whilst the farmer looks benignly on, masks the increasing desperation & despair shared by those in the industry.  Your delicious, healthy milk will have cost far more time, money & effort to produce than that over-priced bottle of water…..eau my goodness!  The white lake is running dry.  I’m sure we all support fair trade – but doesn’t charity begin at home….?

About LittleFfarm Dairy

The LittleFfarm Dairy Team: Jo - Goat farmer & Gelatiere Artigianale, plus General Dogsbody; Tony - Airline Pilot & part-time Herd Manager, Product Taster, Accounts Secretary, Handyman etc!
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