Giving farmers what they need, not what they want

Gwyn Jones' Farm Diary
Gwyn Jones' Farm Diary

Wild weather last week, especially up north as the ‘weather bomb’ hit the country on Tuesday night, 60ft waves out in the North sea driven by winds of up to 80mph crashed onto the coastline of western Scotland, tens of thousands without power and severe disruption on rail road and of course ferries.

This storm, a result of the clash between cold Arctic air and warmer air further south sucked up by the jet stream travelling at over 200mph across the Atlantic; just like a roaring fire pulling in massive draught.

We have had plenty of storms such as this one and many worse but the words ‘storm bomb’ caught our attention and I understand that it means that the pressure at the centre of the storm dropped by over 24 milli-bars in 24 hours; technical name for this is ‘cyclogenesis’.

I was up in Skipton (North Yorkshire) on Tuesday of last week where temperatures were well below what we have here in the soft south. I saw my first ‘ice-breaker’ swan as I enjoyed some breakfast before speaking at the ‘NFU Northern Dairy Conference’; the canal outside the hotel at Skipton had frozen overnight and a large swan was making his way up the canal, popping out of the water and bringing his chest down on the ice to break it as he made his very slow progress along the canal with th’wife and young’un following behind.

The Conference was very well attended and my first large gathering since my appointment as Agricultural and Horticultural Development Board (AHDB) Board member and Chairman of Dairy Co (or AHDB Dairy as it will soon be known).

I expected a fair amount of flak, and I was not disappointed! Rob Harrison (NFU National Dairy Board Chairman) was speaking, as was George Eustice Minister responsible for Farming and Food. Many dairy farmers are finding life difficult and in some cases extremely tough, as they try and cope with huge cuts in the milk price, with more announced for January, and massive problems predicted next spring as the usual wall of milk arrives from spring grass and the spring calving herds in the west.

My messages are difficult to accept in these difficult times, but they are the ones which offer farmers the truthful option for survival. We need to understand world markets and accept that they are now part of British dairying, cut our costs, increase efficiency and become competitive. It’s a case of giving farmers what they need and not what they want, but delivered in a more subtle way than I have just described. As you can imagine that went down like a lead balloon at Skipton and I was challenged during questions on a number of points including as to whether I was the man for this job; which is a question for others in due course once I have served rather longer than the seven weeks in post.

AHDB Dairy is here to help and I did point out the power of collaboration in delivering for the price of less than two days of a private consultant’s time for the average size dairy farm, everything we do at AHDB Dairy, from market information, genetics, research and development, funding the Dairy Council in collating evidence for the position of dairy in a balanced diet, knowledge transfer through communications and our extension officer team who organise meetings on farm and conduct seminars, lectures and bring over experts from other countries to speak to farmer groups and a great deal more.

However, times are tough and I offered them my first impressions and thoughts on our organisation which is about to embark on a major change under Peter Kendall our Chairman, once we have the other board members in place and our new CEO appointed.

I believe AHDB Dairy needs to communicate what we do much better, and make sure those who are in partnership and others who use our work give us full credit for that work. I believe we must communicate with the consumer more and tell the story of British farming, the wonderful world of dairy with its cows and farms across the country. We have tremendous public support in dairy farming and we need to engage more.

I suggested the industry needs to stop the in-fighting which tends to happen in times of crisis, work together and find solutions.

I suggested strongly that the dairy industry needs to adopt ideas far more quickly that it does; it took five years and the crash of 2012 before dairy farmers collectively embraced the need for proper contracts, by which time the world had changed dramatically and adopting any idea in times of crisis expecting it to cure the problem is naïve.

We need to do our planning and negotiating when demand is high and prices are good. That is also when we should plan for the next downturn, and I am now pushing for measures to assist in planning for the downturn which will inevitably follow this one.

We need to prepare for when volatility works against us (low prices) by developing futures pricing and hedging, with the other tools which assist in minimising price fluctuation. It will mean selling forward or hedging part of one’s production at a lower price when things are good in order to cushion the effect of devastating low prices. It will not be easy, but we must see what can be done as we cannot carry on like this as an industry; we are now under 10,000 dairy farmers in England and Wales.

I have never seen this industry with such variance, people who are worried about their survival this winter, and others who have or are building new dairy units. We have a huge range of prices, with some excellent and others well below the cost of production.

We have, of course, different farms with different opportunities and up in Skipton they felt extremely disadvantaged in the main, although many were selling to Arla Co-op which is the same as almost a third of our dairy farmers in this country. Tough times ahead and I will do what I can to help was my message.

On a lighter note, I must take issue with Dafydd Iwan, the first really popular and best known Welsh pop/protest/folk singer songwriter who burst on the scene in the 60s.

The prolific artist and former President of Plaid Cymru, has raised objections to the singing of ‘Delilah’ at Welsh rugby games, as it is ‘a song about murder and trivialises the idea of murdering a woman’. Well I don’t know about you but I enjoy pop music but never really thought most of the lyrics are worth looking at; just enjoy the music and Delilah is a wonderful song for creating atmosphere at welsh rugby matches.

Does Dafydd Iwan want to ban all such songs? Pop/folk/opera? What about plays and all other form of the arts? I think we should be told.