The Future of Dairy Farming Continues to be Positive
Farmer Richard was invited to pen a podium piece for the Westmorland Gazette newspaper giving his views on dairy farming and fluctuating milk prices. The article follows below…
“Dairy farming and milk prices have been in the news recently as the industry faces one of its cyclical downturns. From the headlines it would be easy to believe that supermarkets are to blame, but the fortunes of dairy farmers have long been at the mercy of global as well as domestic pressures.
The story is complex and goes back as far as the repeal of the corn laws in 1849, which removed protection from foreign imports, and the post-war depression of the 1930’s, when the government backed out of promises to help agriculture due to cash shortages. The Milk Marketing Board was established at this point to control milk production and distribution in the UK, and to guarantee a minimum price. Since then the industry has been through notable periods of change:
In 1973 the UK joined Europe, which also had a policy of price support and increasing production. By the early 1980’s there was more food produced than the market could absorb.
In 1984 milk quotas were introduced and production was limited. A price support system was in place so prices were stabilized but over the years this base has been lowered and fluctuations have increased.
In 1994 the MMB was disbanded after the deregulation of milk marketing in UK. The reliance of the high value liquid market (60% at this time)and the increasing dominance of supermarkets selling liquid milk, plus the fragmentation of dairy farmers into small groups, meant that the liquid premium was eroded. With little investment having been made in manufactured products, the price paid to farmers fell rapidly.
The past twenty years has seen huge changes in the industry. In 1984, there were 740 dairy farmers still milking by hand, now dairy farmers must be technically efficient and focused on producing more litres to remain in business. The industry is a quarter of the size it used to be with just 9.9 million dairy farmers still operating, yet herd sizes have doubled in the same period. The buying and processing of milk is concentrated into fewer hands.
These hands are often Europe-owned farmer cooperatives who see the UK as a good place to produce milk (we have a good climate and well developed farms). They have built new dairies to produce products for export.
And things are continuing to change as market forces begin to drive the price once more. A huge market has started to emerge, particularly in countries such as China where the purchase of powdered milk is reducing, and by the end of this month quotas will no longer be in place.
Having run our family dairy farm at Low Sizergh Barn for 35 years, we know that this current plummet will be followed by a recovery. But we also know that the industry will continue to face difficulties.
So we have created complementary non-farming enterprises in the farm shop and tea room, and we have altered the breed of cows in our herd as well as our production systems to make best use of our grass crop. We still enjoy dairy farming and have changed from peak workloads to seasonal workloads, which allows for a more acceptable work/life balance.
And our view of the industry’s future remains positive – people need to eat; the quality of milk, environmental stewardship and high standards of animal welfare that we – and dairy farmers on our doorstep – provide, will win out. We hope that our local community will support local dairy farmers by buying milk and milk products from a source as close to the farmer as possible. That way Sizergh will continue to be synonymous with dairy farming for generations to come.”