‘Why I never want to be a dairy farmer’, by a farmer’s daughter

Dairy farmer's daughter Beth Rowland explains how watching her family farm struggle with crashing milk prices has made her think twice about a life as a milk producer. 

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You might be wondering why there’s so much fuss about the price of milk at the moment. Why are farmers taking their cows into ASDA or buying up shelves of supermarket milk and giving it away to customers outside? Essentially we’ve reached a stage in this country where dairy farmers are paid less for their milk than it costs to produce it. And as a dairy farmer’s daughter, I know how much that hurts.

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I live on a small family mixed dairy farm in Warwickshire and for as long as I have known money has been tight. The average retail price of a litre of milk is 58p and the average cost of production is 30p. Last year, my dad was paid 30p per litre by his supplier, a ‘good’ year, yet only just enough to break even. This morning’s milk cheque revealed that this month, my dad received 23p per litre. With 130 cows on our farm, that equates to a loss this year of £70,000. To sustain this loss yearly would not be viable: for now, we will have to hope for a bumper harvest in order to make ends meet.

Many dairy farmers are protesting for fairer prices. David Handley, chairman of the campaign group Farmers for Action, has called the crisis a “morality issue”. But in a climate where consumers want, if not need, cheaper food, will they pay more for milk? Farmers have spoken at length about our sympathies with the consumer. British products tend to be more expensive than imported ones, so can shoppers afford to always buy British milk?

The protests by farmers have caught the attention of the national media but my family have not joined in. The farmers buying milk and giving it away to shoppers seem to essentially be paying twice for their milk, with the supermarkets still benefitting. We do not protest because we cannot afford not to work. I am not challenging the protesters – I commend the work they are doing. However, it is a concentrated effort by the whole industry that we need to give farmers a fair price. The change will come when British milk lines the shelves of all the supermarkets, at a price more than the farmers’ cost of production.

“I don’t think English farmers are making much difference”, my dad said, and the harsh reality is that, for a while at least, the milk industry could survive without British dairy farmers, relying on cheap imports from countries like New Zealand, where the cost of milk is even lower. But just how sustainable is that, and do the public really want a future without at least the choice of British milk?

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I’m proud to say I am a dairy farmer’s daughter but I won’t follow my dad into the business. Why would I? I am not prepared to sign up for a life of debt to produce it. If we as a country want British dairy farmers to survive, then we need to think about how much we pay for our milk. Or be prepared to drink our tea black should those cheap imports dry up.