NFU24: Dairy – shaping the political landscape and creating a resilient future

21 February 2024

An image of Michael Oakes speaking at NFU Conference 24.

NFU Dairy Board chair Michael Oakes reiterated the NFU’s message that we need resilient, profitable businesses to ensure the long-term supply of dairy production in the UK at the dairy breakout session at NFU Conference – and welcomed news announced by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak that fair dealing regulations will come into force this year.

“This has been a long time coming – and at times felt like it never would,” Michael said on the news that legislation will be laid before Parliament.

“It has been over a decade’s worth of work from all four farming unions to get us to this point.

“It will not solve all the problems we face as an industry, nor will it fix prices. But it will help ensure producers are treated fairly, that contracts are transparent, and a contract signed cannot be altered without agreement.”

James Osman, NFU Special Projects Manager, added it’s a “really exciting moment” and the move is something to be celebrated as an industry.

Long term supply

After what he called “another tough year” for dairy farmers, Michael said there continues to be a big gap between the top and bottom of the price table.

The results of the NFU’s producer intentions survey last year, where over 30% of producers said they were uncertain about their future in the industry, were stark. It demonstrated the importance and urgency with which government must work with the supply chain, especially when it comes to the development of future regulation, to ensure legislation is fit for purpose and supports profitable, productive, long-term businesses.

‘The job is not finished’

Highlighting the board’s achievements over the last few years, Michael said: “I can say with confidence that the work of the NFU has put member businesses in a stronger position.”

For instance, the NFU’s Dairy Export Strategy has helped secure an additional £1m to promote British dairy and has seen the Dairy Export Programme set up, with industry working together with the Department for Trade and Business, to lower trade barriers and improve market access.

“I can say with confidence that the work of the NFU has put member businesses in a stronger position.”

NFU Dairy Board chair Michael Oakes

But “the job is not finished,” he added.

Top of mind should be our next steps for fair supply chains, with a strong focus on strengthening farmer representation and improving the negotiating position of producers in the supply chain to make the most of the incoming legislation.

The impact of BTV should also not be underestimated.

“It is essential we do what we can to slow the spread of bluetongue this coming year and the UK is not behind the curve when it comes to pushing for vaccine development.”

Keep up to date with the latest Bluetongue updates: Bluetongue – essential information

A bright future 

Abi Kay, Deputy Editor, Farmer’s Weekly identified gender equality as a “bright spot” in helping to tackle issues including low profitability, selling to increasingly environmentally conscious consumers, reducing volatility, and tackling labour shortages.

She added research into male-dominated industries has shown companies with the highest percentage of women in management are, on average, 47% more profitable than those with the lowest.

“At times of change, it’s best to focus on what you control and not what you can’t and making your business the most female-friendly it can be is a good place to start.”

Abi Reader, Deputy President, NFU Cymru, also championed diversity and hailed the “absolute success story” of the dairy contracts.

She added the future of dairy in Wales is “going to be absolutely incredible” with a lot of young people coming into the sector and a lot of opportunity to embrace diversity.

“I am optimistic for the future, there are a few serious concerns at the moment which must be overcome, but I believe the future is bright for the dairy sector, and we should be proud of what we do.”

Meet the speakers from this session

Abi Kay

Deputy Editor, Farmer’s Weekly

Abi is deputy editor at Farmers Weekly.

Previously she worked at Farmers Guardian as Head of News, and in the NFU’s government and parliamentary affairs team.

She began her career in Parliament, where she worked for six years. She has won a number of accolades for agricultural journalism, including the Young Leaders in Agricultural Journalism Award from the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists.


Abi Reader

NFU Cymru Deputy President

The farm is home to milking cows, sheep, beef cattle and around 120 acres of arable. Abi is a co-founder of Cows on Tour, an Open Farm Sunday host and a former NFU Cymru Wales Woman Farmer of the Year. In 2019 she was honoured by the Queen with an MBE for her services to agriculture.

Abi is a third generation mixed farmer, farming in partnership with her parents and uncle in Wenvoe, just outside Cardiff.

James Osman

NFU Special Projects Manager

James Osman has been with the NFU for over 10 years, spending the last four years as Chief Dairy Adviser.

He leads the dairy team and works closely with the Dairy Board to drive forward their priorities and represent dairy farmer members.

James has recently taken on the position of Special Projects Manager for the NFU, working on a number of sector specific and cross-sector focused projects and supply chain reviews.

As a graduate of Environmental Science from Southampton University, he has a keen interest in environmental issues and climate change. James grew up on a family dairy farm, and also runs a diversified beef farm business on the Isle of Wight with a farm shop.   

Michael Oakes

NFU Dairy Board chair (2016-2024)

A tenant farmer on the southern outskirts of Birmingham, Michael milks a closed herd of 180 pedigree Holsteins.

Milk is sold to Arla, with surplus heifers sold at calving.

Michael has held various roles within the NFU, as Worcestershire county chair, West Midlands regional board chair and council delegate. Michael has been on the NFU Dairy Board for nearly 14 years; two as vice chair and almost 8 as chair. He was re-elected to serve his fourth term as chair in March 2022. 

Michael believes strongly in farmer collaboration, as well as improving the mechanics of the supply chain and is keen to improve relationships between farmers, processors and end users, whilst continuing to build consumer support for the industry.

Verity Richards

Dairy policy specialist, National Farmers' Union

Verity has been with the NFU for nearly eight years, starting on the graduate scheme before originally joining the dairy team back in 2017.

She spent three years working for the British Agriculture Bureau as a European policy adviser in Brussels, representing the UK Farming Unions through the Brexit transition and helping to build new trading relationships with the EU.

Re-joining the NFU's dairy team in the summer of 2022, Verity works closely with the National Dairy Board on areas such as exports and trade, air quality, farmer representation and helps to manage supply chain relationships.

She studied political science at Exeter University and grew up on a mixed arable and livestock farm on the Herefordshire border.

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