Dairy farmers looking for long-term solutions from Commons' debate
Dairy farmers in the Westcountry are pinning their hopes for the future of their industry on a Parliamentary debate today.
After a summer of discontent, which saw farmers reduced to picketing large dairies after threats that payments for their milk would be slashed, a Commons debate is due to take place to thrash out problems facing the milk sector. Farmers are hoping the debate will not simply feature a series of MPs one after another pledging support without concrete commitments, and that the opportunity to produce realistic solutions that the debate gives will not be lost.
But a change of Environment Secretary and Farming Minister in the autumn Cabinet reshuffle has inevitably led to enhanced concerns about Government resolve to help its producers, said Mark Oliver, of the NFU South West regional dairy board.
"With the change of ministers we hope the new people – Owen Paterson and David Heath – realise the gravity of the situation, and the potential to put things right now for the long term," said Mr Oliver, who milks 500 Holstein cows at Lanhydrock, near Bodmin. "Any long-term solutions, like the voluntary code of practice, should be examined in the debate with a view to giving them extra support."
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The voluntary code was agreed between the Dairy Coalition, made up of producer organisations, and the processors' association to ensure greater fairness and transparency and ensure farmers are not trading at a loss.
"Only time will tell if it works," added Mr Oliver. "And we need a change of attitude by the dairy processors towards their farmer suppliers."
If the voluntary aspect of the code failed to work, if the big dairies reverted to cutting payments at short notice and without consultation, there would have to be legislation to ensure fair practice, he said.
"The large retailers and the big dairies must come to realise the gravity of their action," he added. "The voluntary code, together with the Grocery Adjudicator, should be more tools in the box that dairy farmers can use."
Neil Parish, Conservative MP for Tiverton and Honiton, and an ex-farmer, will be taking part in today's debate.
"We must find a long-term solution for the dairy industry," he said. "We have to look at the voluntary code – and if we find it just isn't working for farmers, do something positive about it. If that happens I shall be asking the Government to bring in a mandatory code."
During the late spring and summer, four of the large dairies, under pressure from the supermarkets, twice announced drops in payments to their suppliers – but the second tranche of cuts, due on August 1, was abandoned after widespread and high-profile protests by farmers.