Tamworth farmers at tipping point over the price of milk
HERE is a question for you – if you were to walk into a supermarket today, which product are you most likely to buy?
Chances are that you've answered this with something that has become an amenity in households across the country: a bottle of milk.
But although it may sit there in your fridge, ready to be poured over your cereal, have you ever considered how much it's cost you?
And do you know how much of your money will go towards the people that work seven days a week, just to ensure supermarkets can stock their shelves full of the white stuff?
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Well, believe it or not, it's next to nothing – and things could get worse.
For Steve and Patricia Hill, they know all too well about being hit in the pocket by milk price cuts.
As the owners of Acacia Grove Farm, which has been passed down through family generations, the dairy farmers produce around 1.2 million litres of milk per year.
But like hundreds of dairy farmers across the country, it has turned into an unprofitable business.
Because for every 30p it costs to produce a litre of milk, the couple will get just 26.5p back.
When you consider the fact they have a 200-acre farm to run, with 150 milking cows, it is a daunting prospect – and what angers them the most is that the price varies for different farmers.
Naturally, the Hill's are furious – and they feel it is now time for them to speak up.
"As farmers we are known to keep our heads down and get on with it, but this is something that needs addressing, and we know a lot of people feel the same way too," said Patricia, who works both on the farm and in the town centre- a decision which she says was out of necessity when children Tom, now aged 24 and sister Lucy, now 22, were younger.
"We have had a lot of challenges, with foot and mouth, Bovine TB, and now this. It just feels as though as soon as you pick your head up, something else comes along.
"Dairy farmers are producing the same product, but the prices are not the same. Our costs are rising, have risen and will continue to rise."
And the farm, which is entirely family run, could face further challenges.
"With farm costs predicted to go up because of this bad weather, it all adds up," explained 50-year-old Steve, who took over the family farm from his father, Peter. "We can't afford to look after our animals if we do not get a fair price. That is exactly what we want – a fair price on the shelf, and a fair price on the farm."
And they are not alone in their stand. After dairy giants Robert Wiseman, Arla Foods UK and Dairy Crest announced cuts of 1.7 pence per litre (ppl), 2 ppl and 1.65ppl respectively, demonstrations began across the country.
The Hill's – who are members of lobby group Farmers for Action – were two of over 3,000 farmers who gathered in Westminster to protest against the plans.
They have attended further demonstrations across the country, and even visited ASDA Tamworth two weeks ago to spread the word on the effect the cuts will have.
"The people of Tamworth were happy to listen to us, and we even had some asking what it all meant," said Patricia. "They showed genuine disgust at the way farmers are treated by milk buyers and supermarkets, and we had many pledging their support."
The widespread demonstrations seemed to have had some form of effect, as this week, several milk suppliers reversed their decision over the cuts.
But Steve believes it is something that is far from finished.
"It has been quiet over the past couple of days, but we've got a long way to go yet," he explained. "This isn't over yet. They may say they reverse the decision now, but what about the future?"
It is clear that just by talking to the couple, farming is firmly in their blood.
Whether it's weekends, a bank holiday, Christmas Day, through sunshine, rain or snow, the family tell me that they work hard to keep their farm running.
The business has seen four generations working within it, with the youngest being son Tom, who studied a degree in agriculture at Harper Adams University in Shropshire.
The farm breeds pedigree Holstein cows – and recently, they picked up an award for the Midlands Best Pedigree Herd.
And it is these animals, who the family all know by name and have seen them grow and develop, that they worry will be directly affected by the cuts.
"It's the animal welfare that concerns me," said Patricia. "It will all be at stake, because we won't be able to afford to call the vet out to treat them if they get ill, and won't even be able to feed them properly."
It's a feeling shared by hundreds of farming families across the country, and with the number of dairy farmers is quickly dwindling, the industry is on the verge of crisis.
In Staffordshire alone, there were 1,276 farmers in 1996 – but in 2010, this had plummeted to just 568.
The National Farmers Union is now petitioning the Government to bring in new legislation that fits the need of the industry, and also a voluntary code of practice.
And although dairy giants may appear to have backed down over the cuts, the Hill's are calling on people power to prevent further price slashes.
"There are a lot of people that rely on milk, not just for their food but also for their jobs," said Steve. "If we get them telling supermarkets how they feel about milk prices, it could have a big effect."
"We are not asking to make a fortune – we need to cover our costs, and to do that, it needs to be fair."