The farmer doth protest too much, methinks

There’s a fine line between protesting to make a point, and when the activities become an annoyance to those who initially sympathised, but eventually don’t like their lifestyle being disrupted. French farmers who continued attacking German and Spanish lorries carrying farm produce are finding out how true that is. Their government, which gave them €600 million in an aid package, has lost patience; their own farm minister has said you can’t be an exporting nation while attacking imports. More worryingly, German authorities have demanded Brussels examines the legality, under EU rules, of the aid package that came from the French government. This shows that even in France protests eventually turn against you.

Protests here at retailers over milk prices have probably run their course. More of the same won’t attract more publicity. It’s little surprise, though, that dairy farmers have been venting their frustration. But this time around when supermarkets say they aren’t to blame for low milk prices, they have a fair point; the price of milk is ridiculously cheap, and even consumers acknowledge that – but much of the price war, according to processors, is being funded by the supermarkets themselves. They aren’t paying less for milk, although the price is already too low. This is because the issue is a massively over-supplied world market. Until that is resolved poor prices will remain, whether for liquid milk on supermarket shelves or milk powders traded on global markets.

That makes solving the problem much more difficult than exerting pressure and embarrassing supermarkets with the general public. They are locked into a war for market share, with price the chosen weapon for the battle between the discounters and the traditional big four supermarkets.

Pressure from the farming lobby is for a review of EU intervention pricing for dairy products. They have a strong case, since the current figure below 16 pence a litre, set in 2005, bears no relation to the cost of production. The odds are still against the European Commission doing anything to improve this, and even if it does, global markets are so bad there’s no guarantee it could buy enough into intervention to reverse forecasts that milk prices will continue falling through the autumn. That’s a depressing thought, but to believe otherwise would be false hope, and in reality farmers need to plan and talk to their banks about how they will handle the autumn and winter.

There is an online petition on Twitter, ‘The EU must help our farmers’, and when it comes the way of you or any of your family members, signing it adds grist to the mill in the campaign to make politicians recognise they can’t continue denying the crisis in farming.

While the focus has been on problems in the dairy industry – and they’re truly grim – this isn’t the only sector of farming that’s suffering. Beef prices have dropped again after a brief rally and lamb prices are giving farmers their worst returns for many years. As the harvest moves into top gear it’s not only the weather causing problems but the fact that grain prices are again poor – and a combination of a costly crop, questionable yields, high drying costs and poor prices is akin to the perfect storm in which dairy farmers find themselves. The common factor for all sectors is the toxic combination of a weak euro, strong sterling and over-supplied markets as farmers continue producing more and more to try to maintain cash flows, even through they know that that this makes things marginally better for them but worse for the industry as a whole.

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