Dairy farmers step up campaign against ‘plunging’ milk prices

Dairy farmers have started to blockade supermarkets over the milk price crisis. PICTURE KEVIN MCAULEY/MCAULEY MULTIMEDIA
Dairy farmers have started to blockade supermarkets over the milk price crisis. PICTURE KEVIN MCAULEY/MCAULEY MULTIMEDIA

The agriculture minister has welcomed the latest figures showing an improvement in the performance of the local food and drinks processing sector.

Dairy farmers calling for government intervention to end the crisis gripping their industry have staged a further protest at a Northern Ireland supermarket.

Newly elected Ulster Unionist MPs Danny Kinahan (left) and Tom Elliott (right) at Westminster with party leader Mike Nesbitt

Newly elected Ulster Unionist MPs Danny Kinahan (left) and Tom Elliott (right) at Westminster with party leader Mike Nesbitt

On Friday night up to 60 milk producers blockaded the Asda store in Strabane to protest at low milk prices in supermarkets they claim are helping to put them out of business.

Police were called and directed traffic away from the demonstrators.

BBC Radio Ulster reporter Elaine McGee was at the scene and spoke to some of those involved, as well as several customers.

Afterwards, she tweeted: “Farmers determined. Mixed views from shoppers. Mostly supportive but say they will buy milk where it’s cheapest.

“One farmer says he expects more of these types of protests this week.”

On Thursday night up to 200 dairy farmers were involved in blockading the three main supermarkets in Coleraine, just hours after an emergency meeting of Stormont’s agricultural committee to discuss plunging milk prices.

Ulster Unionist MP Tom Elliott has called for “combined action from the EU, UK Government and Stormont Executive” to halt the decline before more farmers face financial ruin.

He said: “I understand that many sectors in Northern Ireland are in extreme uncertainty, however the dairy industry is in its worst possible crisis.

“A number of factors have contributed to the plummeting milk price such as China’s stuttering market and Russia’s decision to stop buying EU products.

“Locally, the intense competition among supermarkets is also having an effect. It has been reported that in some supermarkets you can now buy four pints of milk for just 89p.

“Milk prices are 19p a litre at the moment, well below the cost of production and there is no sign of an improvement.”

Mr Elliott said the rising cost of farm materials and feed stuff is adding to the problems.

“The logic is simple, on average it costs around 26p for farmers to produce a litre of milk, yet most farmers are being paid less than 20p. It is evident that farmers need around 27p a litre to break even,” he said.

The Fermanagh & South Tyrone representative added: “In the past three weeks I have corresponded with Neil Parish MP, chairman of the Westminster EFRA Committee, and Liz Truss, secretary of state for EFRA. I have invited both of these representatives over to Northern Ireland to meet farmers so that they understand their genuine concern and plight in regards to the falling milk prices.

“The EU and our own government must explore the possibility of having an increased intervention base milk price or export refunds in order to protect the industry. That is why I repeat the need for a combined effort from Brussels, the UK Government and the Northern Ireland Executive to take on the dairy crisis.”

Farmers’ representatives have also called for the European Agriculture Commissioner Phil Hogan to review the “outdated” intervention price which was set at 16p in 2003.

The Ulster Farmers’ Union has said many will go out of business if the EU Commission fails to take action soon.

As the agriculture committee met on Thursday to discuss the crisis, 200 dairy farmers staged a picket at Parliament Buildings, urging Prime Minister David Cameron to step in to help them through what one called the “worst crisis in living memory”.

Coleraine-based independent MLA Claire Sugden said she is 100 per cent behind the farmers.

“I am fully supportive of the farmers who protested in Coleraine, and across Northern Ireland, this week in the midst of a milk market crisis. Large supermarkets who can afford to pay local farmers for the milk that they produce are driving down milk prices and putting dairy farms out of business. Market volatility has been a concern which I have been discussing with the agriculture minister for months.”

Ms Sugden added: “The minister (Michelle O’Neill) says she is encouraging efficient production, business management and prudent spending, yet market volatility is unpredictable and these measures can only go so far.

“I call on all of the local supermarkets to work with farmers to come to a reasonable solution. I will be writing to each supermarket to encourage this.”

At Thursday night’s protest in Coleraine, farmer Ian Pollock said: “We’re just not getting enough money for our product. So we organised a peaceful protest aimed at the supermarkets.

“We want to get the message out that we’re about to go out of business,” he told UTV.

Sinn Fein’s Ian Milne said it was important that “financial flexibilities are applied to dairy farmers to get them through the immediate crisis.

“I was part of a delegation from the agriculture committee who met with dairy farmers yesterday at Stormont to listen to the problems they are currently facing. There is no doubt that many farmers face going to the wall if conditions in the industry don’t improve in the months ahead.”

He added: “The British Government could devolve more fiscal powers to the assembly to enable them to support indigenous industries like farming in a time of crisis.”