At the end of last month I found myself, along with other farming organisations and the Women’s Institute, in a garden adjacent to the House of Commons being photographed with a young lady who was in a bath of milk.
The national media had turned out in force with photographers and two TV cameras to record the moment – and a number of MPs were queuing up to be photographed with the ‘bathing beauty’.
The media event had been organised to publicise the petition of 72,000 signatures collected by the WI, which was handed over to Caroline Spelman MP for presentation to the House of Commons.
This petition follows on from the thousands who sent a postcard to Tony Blair demanding that government create a watchdog to ensure that everyone in the milk chain gates affair deal and to ensure that the UK maintains the ability to feed itself.
As surreal as the whole media circus seemed this was a significant moment for those campaigning for a viable and sustainable future for dairy farming. Because this is the first time that a respected and influential consumer organisation has initiated and taken the lead in a campaign to keep dairy farmers on the land and get them a fair price for their milk.
The WI certainly brings a lot of clout to the campaign. They have experience of running successful campaigns, they know how to run a campaign that connects with the public and politicians, and they have shown that they have teeth (as Mr Blair learnt to his cost a couple of years ago).
Through their efforts the campaign for a fair farmgate milk price has moved forward from being dismissed as a few whingeing farmers asking for more money, to a national issue of supermarkets abusing their dominance over their milk producers.
The campaign has also moved into the House of Commons with over 100 MPs from both rural and urban constituencies signing up to the aims and objectives of the All Party Group for Dairy Farmers. Chaired by Daniel Kawcyynski MP this group was established to generate government action on the continued milk price cuts that are forcing so many dairy farmers out of business.
In a welcome development Marks and Spencer has increased the price their milk suppliers receive by introducing a new method of calculating the milk price that includes not just milk quality but also the legitimate costs of producing milk. Waitrose has a similar scheme for its milk suppliers – and both have been able to remain competitive at the checkout.
In reality government can only facilitate the changes needed to ensure a secure future for our dairy industry. With public sympathy and political support for dairy farmers at unprecedented levels the supermarkets are finding themselves isolated and facing the possibility of regulation being imposed on them.
Ultimately the power to address the problem lies with the bosses of the supermarkets and, on past record, it’s difficult to be confident of their willingness to act.