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Last Updated: Tuesday, 8 June, 2004, 15:01 GMT 16:01 UK
Dairy farmers face the abyss
By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Online

Many farmers face going out of business
The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee has acknowledged that the average price paid to farmers for a litre of milk does not cover the average cost of producing it.

Low milk prices since the abolition of the Milk Marketing Board in 1994 have meant dairy farmers are facing an increasingly desperate battle for survival.

In Devon, there are few things so redolent of the area than the clotted cream and other dairy products produced by its farmers and dairies.

Brian Warren, 57, was born on his farm near Crediton and has worked there ever since, but is now preparing to hand on the baton to his son, who faces an uncertain future in an increasingly difficult profession, knowing he may have to expand to survive.

Both a dairy farmer and a co-ordinator for the Farm Crisis Network, Mr Warren sees only one future for the industry if prices are kept low.

When you have borrowed a lot of money and you see the price of milk going down, what are you going to do
Brian Warren
He told BBC News Online: "It is going to be disastrous. There are a lot of people hanging on. A lot of farmers are prepared to sell. The whole structure is changing dramatically."

With suicide rates high in the industry, Mr Warren said isolation was a danger as numbers working on dairy farms dropped as part of the battle to be competitive.

"Where once four people worked, there is now one full-time worker and a part-time worker. It used to be a laugh and a joke and we all enjoyed it.

"Isolation is a fair recipe for depression. Then you begin to get things out of perspective. When you have borrowed a lot of money and you see the price of milk going down, what are you going to do?

"The farm's been in the family a lot of generations and you are the only one who has failed."

Mr Warren says the complexion of the countryside will be changed permanently if the dairy industry is allowed to slide further.

"Farmers are prepared to work seven days a week for the love of their animals, and the care of the countryside and to feed their families. But once you have lost one generation, I don't think the next is going to be so keen.

"The government is not very sympathetic. They are not only going to lose the food production; they are going to lose the people who look after the countryside."

With supermarkets demanding low prices and dairies paying low rates to farmers, many face a risky choice, knowing only expansion can help them cut their costs, but knowing only risky borrowing can allow expansion.

Borrowing danger

"Anybody who sells to the supermarket knows they are always out to do a deal, a two-for-the-price-of-one, but it is paid for by the producer rather than the supermarket.

"It is all competition and keeping everything down. But if you ask a lot of housewives about milk and bread they don't worry about the price. It is likely to drop again.

"I know a son who is trying to take over from his parents, they can't make a living from it. He has paid [for milk quota] by credit card. He is hoping to change credit card every six months to avoid interest.

"If a bank won't let him borrow there's probably a good reason."

For Mr Warren, the public must change their attitude about food and the preservation of the countryside.

"It is about educating the public about how things work in the countryside. They are going to have to pay more for their food, otherwise it is all going to be gone before they know it."

Your comments

I completely agree that milk prices are far too low, and farmers are struggling to make a living, when they shouldn't be. As an active young farmer I know that the situations of farmers, just like those illustrated in the article, are only too true. People will always buy milk, it won't make a substantial difference to the consumer if the prices are put up slightly, yet the farmer will get the benefits. I think the public do need to have to opportunity to see how things really work in the countryside. I believe a lot of the people have distorted views about a farmers work, and how much money actually goes to a farmer from one pint of milk. If the public come to realize exactly what sort of trouble a lot of farmers are in these days, then they probably wont have a problem spending a few extra pennies on milk.
Caroline, Dorrington, Shropshire

The milk in supermarkets is far too cheap. As well as harming the farmers, it doesn't benefit the consumers because the supermarkets use low milk prices to get customers in and to force corner shops out of business and then rip their customers off by inflating the prices of other products. Have a look at the cleaning product range in your local supermarket for proof of this.
Tim, Bath, England

I feel that the price of milk should be raised (not by much) to profit the farm owners there are too many middle people. Cut the middle man and increase your profit. I think most people will be fine paying $.50 more for a gallon of milk.
Jimena Saravia, Oakland Park, Florida USA

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