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On Brexit, as with changes to dairy contracts, farmers must speak with one voice

On Brexit, as with changes to dairy contracts, farmers must speak with one voice or risk going unheard, says Cheshire farmer Phil Latham.

2020, the year of high hurdles.

 

It’s at times like this I focus on my Dad’s oft-used phrase not to try and jump them all at once, but one at a time.

 

My milk price is on the floor, there’s a pandemic, I need to borrow more money, there might be a second wave of infection, Brexit looms and I bear no resemblance to Colin Jackson.

 

The Government’s measures to slow down the spread of coronavirus were the closing down of the hospitality sector, with its pubs, hotels and cafes.

 

Fast food outlets stood idle, school playgrounds remained eerily quiet, and with that the demand collapsed from these markets.

 

Of course, there were winners too.

 

Volatility

 

Those benefitting from a European pricing model and the weakness of our pound have been insulated from the volatility.

 

Those fortunate to have been in retail aligned pools have also largely been protected from the turbulence in the market.

 

In the ensuing chaos, we saw an uplift in demand in supermarkets and the redistribution of milk from pre-corona contracts into new pools.

 

But this came at a cost, with the market uncertainty about how long the closures might last driving the price of milk down for those exposed in commodity markets.

 

The pandemic has forced some to retreat into their bunkers.

 

Risks

 

Some want to stay there, but when you’ve got livestock you’ve no choice but to get up, get out and face the day with all the normal challenges and new risks.

 

We’re lucky, our world is well-ventilated, the office is a field and the commute a short stroll in wellies in the fresh air.

 

We have space and our operations are normally at a social distance, considered low risk in this corona era, largely because we work in tiny teams.

 

Safe in our relative isolation, we have continued despite the losses from the milk price drop and the pandemic.

 

But as the Brexit negotiations gather pace and the stakes grow in the game of brinkmanship, with opposing arguments about alignment with our European partners, there’s more market uncertainty ahead.

 

Capitulate

 

We cannot have our cake and eat it – no one can. We will either capitulate or lose our free and frictionless access.

 

Getting farming’s voice heard in the clamour will be hard, and we find it hard to work together.

 

It will be interesting to see what the Government hears now it has asked for views on dairy contracts.

 

I don’t blame my buyer for all the pain we’re feeling just now, because no one saw this coming.

 

I do, however, want them to be responsible for the terms on which they trade our products.

 

Having a single customer demanding exclusivity, A and B pricing and long notice periods gives plenty of security to buyers.

 

Turmoil

 

Couple that with buyer’s discretion, and everyone knows farmers will foot the bill for market turmoil, because the option is there to pass on any financial pain.

 

The speed of debt transfer and disproportionate distribution of risk and rewards between processors and farmers was made clear this spring.

 

And there was plenty of evidence of our weakness to agree fair terms.

 

The question is though, can we articulate what we want and how the status quo can be improved?

 

Our tiny teams have small voices. If we don’t collaborate to create a collective roar, then we won’t be heard.

 

Splits

 

The splits between aligned and non-aligned farmers are as keenly felt as those of remainers and Brexiteers.

 

Our division is our weakness.

 

Will the haves lend their weight to the have nots in the consultation asking for better terms post-Brexit?

 

Lord knows we need them.

 

Phil can be found tweeting at @PhilLatham

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