SPECIAL REPORT - Dairy farming crisis in Harrogate

Dairy farming in the Harrogate district is facing one of its biggest crises yet, the NFU has warned, as it emerges that nearly half of all farmers in North Yorkshire have left the industry since 2002.

New figures show that 48 per cent of dairy farmers in the region, faced with crippling price cuts and payment delays, have quit the industry in just over a decade.

Dairy cattle. (S)

Dairy cattle. (S)

This North Yorkshire figure, of 489 farmers who have all sold up or started new jobs since 2002, is the second highest for the country, coming second only to Devon.

And, as it is now cheaper to buy milk in the Harrogate district than bottled water, the NFU is calling for action before any more farmers are forced out of business.

“These latest figures don’t come as a surprise,” said NFU dairy board chairman Rob Harrison, saying that more needs to be done to safeguard farmers’ futures before it is too late.

“Being a dairy farmer at the moment is like being a boxer - on the ropes and taking body blow after body blow – there’s only so much you can take before throwing in the towel.”

NAPB 1501203AM3 Dairy farmer David Smith.(1501203AM3)

NAPB 1501203AM3 Dairy farmer David Smith.(1501203AM3)

North Yorkshire has lost a total of 489 dairy farmers since 2002, with 51 leaving in the last year alone.

Just over a year ago, the price per litre (ppl) for milk averaged close to 30p. That figure has now fallen as low as 20p in parts, putting extreme financial pressure on already struggling farmers.

The issue has been brought to a head this week as co-operative First Milk piled further pressure on troubled farmers, announcing they wouldn’t be paid on Monday.

Instead, the co-operative said, its suppliers would have their milk payments deferred by two weeks, continuing from now on, as it battles to counter plunging dairy prices nationwide.

“I am completely appalled by the ongoing price cuts crippling our industry and we are working hard to support our members and their businesses in every way we can,” said Mr Harrison.

“Yet despite the grief many dairy farmers are facing, it’s heartening that the British public is still supporting us. Eighty-six per cent of people tell us they want to buy more British products.”

Fodder in Harrogate is one of those stores which fights to ensure that the farmer gets a fair price, buying its milk from Dales Dairies in Grassington.

“It might seem great in the short term to have cheap milk on the supermarket shelves,” said Heather Parry, deputy chief executive of owners the Yorkshire Agricultural Society (YAS). “But what’s the long term cost? It’s a worry if we lose the farmers of the future, for the sake of saving a few pence now.” Fodder says it fights to ensure that it supports local farmers, citing “sustainability” as one of its main aims. The quality of the milk produced in this county, and this country, is far better and far more regulated,” said Ms Parry. “We pay a fair price, to local farmers. We charge a fair price. The last thing we want is for farmers to go out of business.”

DELAYS

Nidderdale and Ripon MP Julian Smith has raised concerns over a delay in payments to farmers for their milk.

First Milk, which announced they were deferring payments due last Monday, January 12, by two weeks, has also asked for more capital investment from farmers in the future.

Following concerns expressed to Mr Smith by local farmers, he has written to First Milk, as well as the Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

“Dairy farming, and particularly the price paid for milk, is always near the top of my agenda and I have met with farmers regularly in recent years to hear about the continual challenge they face,” he said. “This announcement from First Milk has caused understandable concern within the industry.

“I hope to get further clarity from the company about why they have taken the decision to delay payment and ensure they are aware of the impact this could have on farmers who may have payments due in the coming weeks.”

FARMER

Second generation Nidderdale farmer David Smith is one of those who have been hit hard by falling milk prices.

The 66-year-old, former president of the Nidderdale Agricultural Society (NAS), still farms 120 dairy cows at Shepherd Lodge near Brimham Rocks.

“With the cuts in milk prices in the past 12 months we now receive 10p per litre less,” he said this week.

“That means a farm of our size now receives between £8,000 and £9,000 a month less income. But the costs are still as high.”

It’s hard for younger farmers, he said, and those just starting out.

“The impact depends on everyone’s own situation,” he said.

“There may be some that haven’t been farming long, and are doing it all on borrowed money.

“We are just hoping there is light at the end of the tunnel. But farmers can’t stand it for much longer. Some are just packing up - there’s a threat of it getting worse before it gets better. When I was going to school, 57 years ago, there were 18 farms on the bus run. Now, there’s only two, and we’re one of them. I can think of two gone last year, another this April. It is very difficult.”

He says the situation has been caused by favourable weather for dairy producer countries worldwide this past year, coupled with the export ban from Russia, and far less demand from China.

“We feel lucky to have a contract with Arla - which is a farmer owned company working closely with the major retailers to try and resolve the situation, as we can’t stand any more cuts to milk prices,” he said. “There’s now less than 10,000 dairy farmers in Britain, with more giving up all the time.”

He said the best way to support local British farmers is to buy milk processed by co-operatives like Arla, including Cravendale, Lurpak and Anchor, or those with the red tractor mark. “Milk is a very undervalued product,” he said. “It’s by far the best energy drink and it’s wonderful for growing children with all the calcium and vitamins it provides.

“For grown ups that enjoy a drink - brandy and milk is a wonderful tipple!”

PRICE OF MILK PER LITRE

Asda - 39.2p

Morrisons - 44p

Tesco - 43.4p

Aldi - 39.2p

Sainsbury’s - 44p

Waitrose - 81.4p

Fodder Harrogate - 89p

Harrogate Spa Water:56p at Asda. Perrier: £1.33pl. Evian: 42p.