Calls for ‘crisis meeting’ to save dairy sector

Stories of farmers being forced to dump milk due to the impacts of the Covid-19 lockdown have been circulating widely on social media, prompting calls for crisis talks with the government to protect the sector.

Stories of farmers being forced to dump milk due to the impacts of the Covid-19 lockdown have been circulating widely on social media, prompting calls for crisis talks with the government to protect the sector.

NFU has said the survival of many dairy farming businesses depends on urgent action from the government. It is calling for a meeting with Defra secretary of state George Eustice today (9th April).

The Covid-19 lockdown has seen demand for milk from cafes, restaurants, pubs and hotels virtually disappear as businesses are forced to close. Meanwhile, an additional strain is being seen by processors due to staff being off sick or having to self-isolate.

RABDF estimates around 300 farms are affected based on the amount of milk being disposed of, but a significantly higher number of farmers are being impacted by reduced milk prices and/or payment terms.

Similar problems are also being seen on a global scale, including in the US and Canada.

Speaking to the BBC Points West programme, RABDF chairman Peter Alvis said: “It’s having a massive impact – there’s farmers that are really distressed and they can’t see an end to what is happening. They’re not receiving any income so they can’t afford to pay their bills. You can just see on social media and from speaking to people the devastation it’s causing on farms.”

Winterdale Cheese in Kent said on social media that their milk was not collected on 5th April and it has still not been paid for February’s milk. Northleaze Farm in Wiltshire was also recently ordered to dump milk due to staff shortages and slower production. Meanwhile, farmer Melissa Underwood posted an emotional video on Twitter after tipping away 2,000l of milk, which she said was “absolutely devastating” for the fourth-generation farm, saying they “can’t go on in these circumstances”.

‘Move fast’ to mitigate impacts

RABDF said suppliers are working to redirect milk and fresh dairy products to shops as quickly as possible, but it is not a simple process. The government is currently looking at proposals put forward by the association to directly reimburse farmers who are receiving significantly reduced value or are having to dispose of milk as a result of their processor being highly reliant on the food service sector.

NFU president Minette Batters said: “For weeks now, we have been flagging to government in our daily calls the issues within the dairy sector and working with Defra to try and find solutions. But the situation is becoming untenable. Only four weeks ago all of this milk was being used, losing businesses at this stage will leave consumers reliant on convenience stores and other difficult to reach outlets not being able to have access to the same supply of milk.

“We believe there may be at least 2,000 dairy farmers suffering severe financial pressure and that number is growing by the day as a result of the impacts of the coronavirus outbreak and as things develop very few dairy businesses will be left unaffected. We need to move fast to mitigate the impacts of this unfolding crisis on dairy farming businesses across the country.

“The Secretary of State needs to step in now and take urgent and decisive action, before it is too late and many of those iconic dairy businesses go to the wall.”

NFU dairy board chairman Michael Oakes said a key issue is that dairy farmers or processors largely cannot access the treasury schemes designed to help businesses through the Covid-19 crisis.

In a statement, a Defra spokesperson said: “We have taken a number of measures to support our food and farming sectors to manage the impact of coronavirus on the dairy supply chain. We are also working very closely with farmer and processor representatives to understand the specific challenges that the dairy sector is facing.

“Frequent discussions with the dairy supply chain will continue through this crucial period to understand what further support the sector needs.”

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