EARLIER this month, First Minister Alex Salmond expressed his support for the dairy farmers who were protesting outside supermarkets and milk processors about the price they were getting for their product.
Mr Salmond said the status quo, in which the farmers could not cover the costs of production, was unsustainable but it was difficult to see how a solution could be found. The idea of a fixed price for milk would never win political support and until recently the supermarkets had appeared unwilling to moderate the power they wield in driving the price down.
Now, at last, there is some hope of progress with the announcement yesterday that a new group has been formed to prevent more price cuts. Not only will this new entity, incorporating farming bodies from all parts of the UK, be supported with £100,000 from the Scottish Government, it should also demonstrate that farmers and supermarkets can come together and work out the beginnings of a compromise. For the first time, all the parties involved – the producers, the processors and the supermarkets – will be round the table together. What better vindication of a determined and dignified campaign by farmers around the country could there be?
The details of how the new system will work are still unclear but there is no reason why it cannot form the basis of a way forward along with a new voluntary code of conduct for the sector, which will be drawn up next month. Naturally, a fear will linger that the supermarkets and processors will continue to use their block buying power to get their own way although Robert Wiseman has already demonstrated good will by holding prices at 26p for next month, cancelling a proposed cut. The new co-ordinated approach in which farmers work more closely is also much more likely to be effective against the power of the big boys. And one of the first items on the agenda should be contracts that give farmers more power, in particular the ability to move their milk supply at short notice, and require supermarkets to give more notice of price drops.
None of this should make us think the crisis in the dairy industry is resolved. Far from it, and Farmers for Action in particular have warned that further protests are possible. However, yesterday's initiative provides some evidence that the supply chain, which has been broken for years, can be fixed to work with greater efficiency. Specifically, there is some hope that, after many years of dairy farmers leaving the land in their droves, there will be less flight from the industry as they should receive a fairer price for their hard work. Today, their hand has been strengthened; tomorrow, the work must start on changing the dairy industry in the long term.
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