Dairy farmers have become ammunition in a price war between supermarkets, forcing them to diversify.
Every day, dairy farmers Andrew and Jane Charlesworth lose £130. They’re not even close to making a profit. “Milk has become a throwaway commodity,” says Andrew. “It’s cheaper than water.”
The Charlesworth family’s story typifies how dairy farmers are struggling up and down the country. The situation is becoming desperate with two farms closing every day and local papers spattered with reports of farmer-suicides.
The Charlesworth’s farm is just outside Sheffield. Twenty years ago, there used to be about 19 dairy farmers in this valley. Now there are three. The value of milk has been volatile since Margaret Thatcher abolished the Milk Marketing Board, which guaranteed a minimum price. Now dairy farmers are at the mercy of processors – who, in turn, are under pressure from retailers, such as Tesco or Aldi, to keep prices low.
Andrew says dairy farmers have become ammunition in a price war between supermarkets. They use milk as a “loss leader” – selling it below the market-cost to entice customers into the store where they’re likely to buy other things. “But why should they use our product? Why can’t they use something else?” says Andrew, frustrated. “Sometimes I want to scream.”
Experts say that small dairy farms should evolve into mega-dairies to make the industry more efficient. Mega-dairies are usually home to more than 1,000 cows and Andrew worries that industrial methods aren’t as kind: “It might be more efficient, but think about the poor animals.”
The Charlesworths are attached to their herd of 100 cows; they know them all by name. They talk about “fiery Jess” and Melvin, who’s just had twins. They don’t want the process to become more anonymous. Andrew looks out across the rolling Sheffield landscape: “Look at them out in the field,” he says. “Don’t they look marvellous with the sun on their backs?” In mega-dairies, cows often never go outside.
The Charlesworths believe that if consumers paid just 10p more for their milk, the industry could survive the way it is. “Ten pence is nothing to them, but to us that would make a massive difference,” says Jane.