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May 12, 2006

Fair Trade is helping Third World producers - Jorocs asks, can we have Fair Trade for British farmers like Matthew too?

Posted by Jorocs

Fair Trade is benefiting Third World producers. But British farmers need Fair Trade too, argues the Social Affairs Unit's hunting correspondent Jorocs.

Yesterday, I watched my farming neighbour, Matthew, as he came out of the house at four o'clock in the afternoon. He crossed the farmyard and entered the milking parlour to start the afternoon milking. He had already worked ten hours and had at least another four to go. I pondered on how, although only in his early forties, he looked older than his father who was in his late seventies.

The family have a great work ethic and have always worked long hours. When I was a boy Matthew's uncle would go out digging ditches by hand by lantern light. But these long hours were done by choice and were financially rewarding. Unlike his uncle, Matthew is in a twenty-four seven grind, with the minimum of sleep. Even then his rest can he broken by the demands of calving cows.

No matter how hard he works, no matter how much he reduces paid labour, he cannot make ends meet financially.

Matthew has the legacy of two generations before him to caretake, but he hasn't heard the North Country saying, "Clogs to clogs in three generations", or heard city analysts say it is virtually impossible to get a family business past three generations.

Matthew is confused. The harder his father worked, the more money came in. The harder he works, the worse the situation gets. He is even worried how long his wife will tolerate this dedicated and unrewarding lifestyle.

What Matthew does not realise is that the situation is not of his making, and therefore he cannot resolve it. It is the supermarkets who buy food at third world prices - for this they will eventually have to accept third world animal welfare standards. But Matthew and his kind are still trying to look after their animals and produce milk in the good welfare manner which they were brought up to believe in.

Not for them the New Zealand practise of grazing cows for one hour a day and then standing the cows on the concrete collecting yard with no roof when it rains heavily - to protect the grass pasture. Not for them the rigid seasonal calving pattern to produce summer milk, which involves aborting some cows at seven months to keep them in cycle with the rest of the herd - and the clubbing to death of the resulting foetuses because they are non viable.

Matthew, if he were aware, would find the current fashion for Fair Trade ironic. Housewives are being encouraged to buy products in the shops with the stamp of Fair Trade Assurance. This guarantees the initial producer of the product a fair price. Coffee is being proposed as a good example. When these same housewives make their coffee and add milk, doesn't it cross their minds that the dairy farmer in this country should also be paid a fair price for his milk? At the March 2006 Royal Association of British Dairy Farmers' Conference at Cheltenham, Tim Smith of Arla (a major European milk processor), when questioned by the BBC about the recent cut in his farmers' milk price, remarked that the farmers were quite happy about the price they were being paid. Unfortunately this is not true, but this is what he wanted the public to hear.

It is ironic that Asda have taken out full page adverts in the press stating they are going to reduce the price of milk to the general public, but at the same time can afford to pay their farmer suppliers more. This "more" will be in the region of 0.25 to 0.5 pence per litre. Arla, the sole processor supplying Asda, have docked their farmers' price by just under a penny since Christmas.

No Mr Supermarket, you have a few more years yet while Matthew and his kind struggle on. You continually cut the price you pay the farmers for milk and yet increase the price to the public so that milk has gone from a loss leader to your most profitable line. Matthew has no choice, he will struggle on. Perhaps he will suffer a nervous breakdown, or his wife will leave, understandably driven by desperation. He will then have to sell up to pay her out, or eventually his creditors will force him to take action. Some farmers in his situation have already been driven to commit suicide.

The current generation of farmers' children will not follow in their parents footsteps and you will no longer be able top up with surpluses from around the world but you will be held to ransom. The food produced in the dairy industry in Britain is only possible because Matthew and his kind are doing the work of two men.

Next time you open your fridge door and take out the milk, remember that in the future it may not be British.

Jorocs writes about farming and hunting life for the Social Affairs Unit. To read more by Jorocs, see Hunting.

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Some have been seeking this for a while:

Midcounties Coop "Local Harvest" debate and policy

Posted by: Jock Coats at May 12, 2006 07:28 PM

Just your luck to be read by an ex-Scot New Zealander...

Farming is suffering in Britain - I know from prior contacts. However; please don't exagerate NZ practices for copy. 'Standing off' is necessary to protect pastures during the worst winter rain - cows are given four to six hours on their grass break before being returned to the yard - sometimes for as long as four days in a row, not usually for a total of more than a fortnight through a winter.
Treading damage at these times can reduce pasture growth for months following - and for this reason British farmers, in their colder and wetter climate, house cows in winter.
Induction is expected to be phased out by 2008. And having seen it in practice - there's no need to club a seven-month foetus. Only a small percentage of farmers still use inductions as a management tool.
Despite the different climates, New Zealand and British farmers can learn a lot from each other - if they can get past stereotyped images like this. Farming methods on this side of the world developed in response to low milk prices, the same situation that British farmers now face.
I'm sorry to say that I'm one of the Brits who saw this coming, and left.

Posted by: H S Howard at May 13, 2006 10:55 AM
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