For several decades now the UK dairy sector has often been the dysfunctional arm of the UK farming family.
It plays a high stakes game of expansionism, but in doing so there are often serious casualties as the shifting sands of the market lay waste to ambition and business acumen.
It also encapsulates the paradox of farming in the 21st century, namely that the most important people in the supply chain – you the farmer – are also the most vulnerable and least protected when markets start to flux.
This week, the coronavirus pandemic has brought parts of the dairy sector to heel. With food service customers disappearing almost overnight as lockdown was announced in the UK, we are back to a situation in which scores of farmers are being forced to pour milk down the drain.
Representative organisations are right to lobby Government for financial assistance to those dairy farms hurt by their processor’s plight.
If the Government is willing to pay for furloughed staff because of its decision to pause the economy, then it is right farmers get the support they need for decisions which are out of their hands.
But for many, those support payments, if they ever do materialise, will only be a sticking plaster as they head towards the industry exit door.
While this year started with the demise of Tomlinson’s Dairies, which left 30-plus farmers shouldering missed payments in excess of £3 million, the problems at Freshways, Medina and Pensworth will leave many more producers out of pocket.
Many in the industry will call for contract reform, and who could argue? Ensuring it is not farmers who take all the risk and little of the reward should be the industry’s central focus, but whether anything tangible happens to aid farmers longer term is less certain.
Dairying has seen unbelievable change over the past 25 years and, unless anything is done to address to inherent structural unfairness within the supply chain, then many more farmers will simply hang up their milking clusters for good.