FARMERS will continue to blockade dairies across the UK to secure a fairer price on milk, says a protest group. Farmers for Action (FFA) has stopped milk lorries going in or out of dairies in Derbyshire and Worcestershire in the last fortnight.
Yesterday it promised more blockades at dairies in Birmingham, Manchester and Leicestershire before the new year.
David Handley, FFA chairman, said the group had been forced into what he called “a sad state of affairs“ after initial optimism across the dairy farming industry, following an agreement between producers and buyers brokered by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) in the autumn.
However, after the breakdown of that agreement the FFA has taken to a campaign of peaceful protests, parking tractors and trailers in front of the entrances and exits of dairies, preventing access to milk tankers.
The FFA has not ruled out targeting the distribution centres of large supermarket chains in their protests.
Mr Handley says farmers have been “forced to act“ because the dairies are still not paying a fair price for the milk farmers produce.
Mr Handley said in addition to its concerns on pricing the big dairies had back-tracked on an agreement known as the Voluntary Code of Conduct which allowed farmers to give three months notice to end a contract where they felt the price being offered was no longer fair.
He said there was concern among milk farmers that retail prices for products like cream were increasing, yet none of that profit was making its way back to the dairy producers.
“The cost to make break-even on producing a litre of milk is 32p, but on average our members are getting about 29-and-a-half pence a litre.
“Some supermarkets are selling milk at four litres for £1. Yet our costs are going up: the cost of feed, chemicals and overheads.
“Feed has gone up from £220 a tonne at the start of the year to about £260 a tonne now, and that’s for a low protein feed.
“Earlier this year we had asked dairies for at least a break-even price, but with the hope we could get up to making a 10% margin on milk.
“Even with that margin, if you have a herd of 120 cows you’re producing a million litres of milk, that’s £30,000 per year on that margin.
“What can you do with £30,000 a year – even with all most modern equipment the milking is still at least a two-man job.”
Earlier in the week, the FFA stopped tankers leaving three sites in Foston and Ashbourne in Derbyshire.
Yesterday, dozens of protesters from the FFA blockaded the Muller-Wiseman Dairies site near Droitwich in Worcestershire using nine tractors and trailers.
Graeme Jack, group corporate communications director for Muller-Wiseman UK, said: “We have a constructive relationship with dairy farmers who are elected to represent those who supply the company.
“We are extremely frustrated to be targeted by 30 people from the militant Farmers for Action group most of whom have no connection whatsoever with our company, and some of whom do not even own dairy herds.”
However, Mr Handley took issue with being branded as ’militants’ saying the protest had been peaceful. He urged the bosses of the UK’s dairies to “sit back down around the negotiating table.”
“We don’t want to be protesting at this time of year, but we will keep on now and into the new year until we get a fair price,” he said.
A West Mercia Police spokesman said officers had attended at Wiseman but there was no trouble.
Meanwhile, Mr Handley said there would be more protests targeting dairies run by Arla, Wiseman and Dairy Crest between now and the weekend.
Asked if milk supplies would be reduced in the run-up to Christmas, Mr Handley said it was “getting that serious“.
Simon Bates, spokesman for Dairy UK which represents dairy producers and suppliers, said: “The British dairy industry has made enormous progress since this summer with significant increases in milk prices and the adoption by the industry of the voluntary code of practice on producer contracts.
“These price movements have not been followed in other EU countries, so the potential damage to our competitive position is obvious.
“The small minority of protesters currently involved in blockading dairy sites should consider deeply the potential consequences of their actions, which could be significantly detrimental for all involved in the dairy industry.
“Input costs remain challenging across the whole agricultural supply chain, and we have no issue with lawful protests. But not blockades, which are not a basis on which to build a sustainable future for the industry.”
Defra, which brokered the voluntary agreement in the autumn, urged both sides to clarify the details and timings contained in the voluntary agreement, saying the deal allows farmers to give three months notice only when dairies signal a change in the price they will pay.
It has urged both sides to work together to solve the issues, but stressed the price of milk could only be governed by market conditions and was not part of the autumn agreement.
Defra officials also pointed to figures in its annual Farm Business Survey covering March 2011 to February 2012, showing the average cost to produce milk was 26.2p a litre while the average price received at market was 28p.
The data also showed only 7% of dairy farmers produced milk at more than 30p per litre in the same period.