The milk price war: how dairy farmers can learn from Fairtrade
The current crisis facing British dairy farmers is very close to home; both my Dad and brother-in-law work for a local dairy farm. Through them I’m aware that, for a long time, dairy farmers have been getting a raw deal.
The handful of farms that are still processing and bottling on site are struggling, but so too are the farmers who produce milk and rely on companies like Arla Foods to process and bottle it. Not only are a lot of farms running at a loss, they are also wasting milk. It is quite literally being poured down the drains.
I couldn’t help but smile at the recent PR stunts – such as the ‘Milk Trolley Challenges’ – carried out by dairy farmers. Some people may not see the logic of farmers re-buying their own milk and handing it out for free or, less admirably, pouring it away, but it’s making a point and it’s making the news. The issue of milk prices is on the media agenda once again.
While many supermarkets – including Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Waitrose – have arrangements to pay farmers above the price of production, Morrison’s has taken a step further by stocking a more expensive ‘Milk for Farmers’ brand. But will it really make a difference? Will the British public voluntarily pay more for the same product, purely to ensure farmers are getting a fair deal?
To get a better idea of the support ‘Milk for Farmers’, or an alternative, would need to be successful I had a look at Fairtrade, the organisation that ensures farmers around the world get fair prices and a fair deal for their products.
In 2014, Fairtrade reported £1.67 billion in UK sales across the 4,500 products licensed to carry the Fairtrade mark. Public awareness of Fairtrade is at 77% and, unlike ‘Milk for Farmers’, not all Fairtrade products are more expensive.
Fairtrade works extremely hard to communicate with consumers to influence buying trends, as well as lobbying governments and businesses to buy and trade Fairtrade products.
A lot of time and resource is focused on social media presence, running competitions, communicating with customers and sharing content, including reports, data and news articles. Fairtrade regularly posts shareable content, such as images of the farmers it works with, recipe tips and reviews. And it taps into current trends and conversations with references to topics such as the Great British Bake Off.
Fairtrade invests in working with schools and educating younger generations on its importance and positive effects of Fairtrade. It works with suppliers to ensure fruit delivered to schools is fairly sourced and develops programmes and competitions to engage schools and groups. By influencing and educating future consumers and, ultimately their social circles, Fairtrade is working to make a tangible difference for the future.
If ‘Milk for Farmers’ or the wider milk campaign wants to be successful, it needs to educate the public and encourage more informed purchasing in order to protect the future of British farming.
Farmers and the dairy unions should be working with other organisations that rely on the dairy industry. Fairtrade has built strong relationships with major companies such as Cadbury, Mars and Starbucks to ensure their practices and products are ethically sourced – the milk industry needs to do the same. Dairy farmers need to be working with and pressuring large companies who rely on milk for production to agree on fairer deals. Supermarkets and their customers are not the only buyers in the milk industry, and large corporations have a significant influence.
‘Milk for Farmers’ and the dairy industry in general need to think more creatively on how they can communicate with people and show how a better deal for farmers can benefit everyone.
According to a Mintel survey of 1,270 milk drinkers, 51% would be prepared to pay more than £1 for four pints of milk (currently normal supermarket prices range from 89p to £1) and the National Farmers Union President, Meurig Raymond, is confident that “British consumers would be prepared to pay more, so long as that money went back to the dairy farmers”.
But I’m not convinced that it’s as easy as that. More work needs to be done to lobby supermarkets, government and large corporations to make sure they are the ones taking ownership of the problem. Passing responsibility onto consumers and leaving farmers and suppliers out of pocket with their price wars is detrimental. Paying farmers less than the cost of production will result in the foods we enjoy becoming unavailable or unaffordable.
More work needs to be done to change public opinion on the price of groceries and the impact it has on farmers and suppliers. In tight economic times, it is difficult to convince households to spend more on identical products for ‘a good cause’ simply by putting another product on the shelf. Arla Foods recently announced it will be putting a new symbol on all its dairy brands to show which products are from farmer-owned businesses and they are compensated accordingly. With the promise of a marketing campaign to complement this, it will be interesting to see whether it is reflected in a growth in sales.
With supermarkets spending huge budgets on promoting low prices rather than CSR and fair trading, will the NFU and ‘Milk for Farmers’ be able to cut through the noise and get customers to spend more on their everyday groceries?
It is clear to see the amount of work that goes into promoting Fairtrade and encouraging consumers to change their spending habits.
Milk for Farmers is a good start in that direction, but if it ends up being a token gesture which lacks any depth or serious support it will most likely prove ineffective.