In the third in a series of articles on coronavirus, NFU dairy board chairman Michael Oakes reflects on the past two weeks and COVID-19’s impact on the dairy sector. He writes:
The past two weeks within the bizarre realms of this 'new normal' which we find ourselves in have certainly been fast paced and eventful. A rapidly increasing number of dairy farmers are being put under intense pressure, through cuts to milk prices, delays on payments and for many, having to manage down the spring flush of milk, which is very testing indeed.
A collaborative response
I will start by talking about the unity and alignment we are seeing across the dairy supply chain at the moment. I can reassure you that there is absolute focus and commitment from all parties across the industry in getting support to farmers in need, ensuring the long term viability of the sector and ensuring a continuous supply of dairy produce to where it is needed. Since my last blog, we convened an urgent roundtable meeting with Defra officials and the Secretary of State, George Eustice, as the NFU, UK farming unions and industry representatives, asking for urgent action for the dairy sector. Not content with the outcomes of this meeting, we followed up with a letter to the Secretary of State on Friday 17 of April, with processor organisations large and small, niche and mainstream standing alongside the UK farming unions to reiterate our asks of government and calls for urgent action.
Over the past two weeks, the industry has also been working tirelessly to collate a bank of evidence to present to Defra to outline the specific issues facing the country’s dairy farmers and propose potential solutions. Since the relaxation of competition law was announced by Defra last Friday, DairyUK and AHDB have collaborated closely, exploring capacity and volumes to ascertain how we can best manage the current situation. They are also rapidly developing a promotional marketing campaign for dairy, building on the successes of the award-winning Department for Dairy Related Scrumptious Affairs work.
As the NFU, alongside the farming unions, we have been developing an extensive set of case studies covering the sliding scale of effects on different dairy farmers, including the implications being felt on mental wellbeing due to the crisis, and we will continue to gather and produce such work through the many examples we have received, to further make the case. The Royal Association of British Dairy Farmers (RABDF) has created an online survey, for all dairy enterprises - be it cow, sheep, goats or buffalo – to submit information on daily accounts of losses and I would urge everyone to engage with this tool as the specific evidence is crucial in ensuring our story is heard. We know that specialist dairy, such as sheep and goat producers are also dramatically affected by the market forces caused by CV19, they have seen big price cuts and complete loss of markets in some cases, so we must also find a way to support them.
Another NFU dairy team workstream includes an extensive proposal to adapt the CBIL scheme, for amendments to be made for the scheme to work for dairy farmers. We understand that so many have been unable to receive vital help through the scheme, which Defra maintains is there to support dairy farmers and other businesses. Furthermore, we have put together other proposals for financial aid and other measures to support the sector. This includes a hardship scheme, which would aim to get support rapidly to those farmers worst affected by the events of the crisis so far and who have immediate cash flow difficulties.
Email your MP and make your voice heard
You may have also seen our 'email to your MP' online tool, which has been used extensively by members and industry supports to send a letter urging the government to take action to support the sector. We have been completely thrilled by the MP engagement as a result of this tool and through member and regional communications with MP’s and this has led to numerous calls and briefings on the dairy crisis with groups of MPs, including a House of Lords Q&A with NFU President Minette Batters yesterday (23 April).
If you haven’t already, please use the tool to write to your MP and detail your own personal circumstances, in addition to the template letter to garner further support, detailing why we need urgent support now and how you are being affected. Getting these pertinent messages through to the government right now is paramount in our efforts to support the sector and show of strength and unity has so far been incredibly effective, with around 2000 uses in only a week. Member engagement on this matter has been impressive and we have had countless interest from media and news outlets on the crisis, with many members featuring in print and on the radio and local news. I myself have recorded an interview for Countryfile this coming weekend, so look out for that.
Above: NFU President Minette Batters hosted a briefing call with over 20 peers from the House of Lords to discuss the serious challenges our dairy farmers, as well as other farmers across the sectors, are facing due to COVID-19 and the need for urgent action to protect the sector.
We want to reassure the British public that the dairy sector and its supply chains are resilient and will continue to get dairy produce onto the shelves. The support for the sector has been increasingly positive, with media promotion by some supermarkets and consumers keen to support their local milkman, and utilising delicious dairy produce in home baking and cooking during lockdown. The NFU's communications department is developing content to engage with the public and maintain consumer support for our sector.
We do however know that there is no possibility of the food service sector, which many dairy farmers supply, returning to normal immediately following this three week extension period to lockdown. We know that when it does eventually return, the market dynamic will not just fall back to normal, with disruption to the sector and whole globe set to affect all of us for many months to come. We are looking to engage closely with the food service sector to project forward how we engage together in the 'exit strategy' to be a smooth transition from the crisis. This will ensure that we have fully scoped out how best to collaborate on the eventual return to 'normality' and how to build our relationship with the food service sector going forwards.
Therefore, we were disappointed to see that the Secretary of State has this week written to MP’s to express his views on the current dairy situation, apparently failing to recognise the severity of the impact on the sector and his views on the immediacy to which 'normal' may be returned to, in our markets and lifestyles. Furthermore, he indicates that he does not feel that a production reduction scheme would work for our situation, despite our assertion that we feel that this would have been a good way to prevent further damage to the sector. Nonetheless, we appreciate the work of the department and we are working with them to develop a variety of proposals to support the sector. The Chancellor of the Exchequer has a good track record for supporting the industry, through his 2015 published 10-point plan for dairy in a previous role on the Efra Select Committee and we would urge him to reiterate his support again now through financial aid.
Looking to the future
We absolutely maintain that the best way forward is through utilising a variety of measures. There is no silver bullet for this crisis and we are committed to getting direct support to those that have been hit the hardest now, while putting in place measures to safeguard and futureproof the long term sustainability of the sector. You may have seen that the EU Commission has opened Private Storage Aid (PSA) for milk powder, cheese, and butter over the past days. This has been one of our key asks and we are pleased to see it being actioned at an EU level. We are now talking to Defra about how it will work in the UK as an element of the combination of measures we believe are required.
We welcomed the competition law relaxation and industry has moved quickly to work through barriers and look for solutions. We will continue to do all we can. We have to solve this problem and we are relentless in our vision and commitment to support the dairy sector. Look out for one another and yourselves and we will continue to work hard on your behalf and ensure positive action is taken.
Stay safe and support each other
Under usual, non-pandemic circumstances, these pains would be challenging enough for any business to face. But with the world existing under such uncertain times, the stresses are certainly exacerbated and that is why I want to end this blog with a reminder to all in the dairy sector and farming community, to check in on one another. Now is not the time for being too proud to ask for or offer help.
There are so many ways we can support one another, be it through a simple phone call or sending a joke to make someone smile. Farmers are some of the most resourceful and widely skilled people on the planet and we can use our experience, skills, and resources to support one another. We all have a role to play in helping the whole industry to come through this crisis. To ensure we are all still here and in a position to produce nutritious and delicious dairy goods. I would not be naïve enough to say that this is not a tough battle and will be tough for some time and I know that the resilience of the farming community has weathered many storms. But while this resilience is an admirable state of mind, it is also important to look after that mind – so I am urging you to work together and look after one another, even if social distancing keeps us physically apart for some time yet.