Down the drain: Dairy farmers share stories of their ‘utter desperation’

Dairy farmers crushed by the economic meltdown caused by the coronavirus pandemic shared their stories of despair yesterday. Katherine Hamilton and her family had to pour away 10,000 litres of wasted milk. 

They have 300 cows at their farm in High Halden, Kent, but were forced to pour away milk when their processor didn’t turn up to collect it, blaming problems with finding enough staff. 

They have since resumed pickups but are only taking around 1,500 litres, compared to the 6,000 to 8,000 a day they usually collect. 

It comes just weeks after the family had a letter to say the price of milk was going to be cut by 2 pence a litre. 

Dairy farmer, Josette Feddes of JoJosDairy, had to throw away 12,000 litres of milk but has now started pasteurising it herself and selling it directly to locals

Then, they were told payment would be delayed until May. 

Mrs Hamilton said: ‘All of the cheques we had issued to pay our suppliers, cattle feed, to the vet, diesel for the tractors – all just bounced. 

‘They are phoning us saying why haven’t we paid? We had to get in touch with the bank and extend the overdraft until May. 

‘The tricky thing for us is that you can’t furlough the staff. We have still got to carry on, you can’t just stop looking after the cows. When they said they weren’t going to collect the milk, it was heartbreaking. 

‘You think what is the world coming to? There are people who need this.’ 

Her processors usually supply coffee shops and airlines. Mrs Hamilton has called for a relaxation on rules so that they can now sell their milk to supermarkets instead. 

‘I think they can’t break into the retail part of the market, the big supermarket chains, because there is a monopoly on them with these big companies and they won’t allow the smaller processors to break in without being in breach of their contracts,’ she said. 

‘People need milk – and there is lots of milk available – but because of the rules it can’t get to the right place.’ 

Katherine Hamilton pictured draining milk from the processor as she no longer can sell as many litres as she usually does

Elsewhere, Josette Feddes was forced to pour away 12,000 litres when processors failed to turn up to collect her milk. Her 250-strong herd produce 6,000 litres a day and she fears further waste if something isn’t done soon. 

She is calling for processors and the Government to work together to find a solution. Her dairy sends the bulk of its daily yield to Freshways, a processing plant in London which sells to Costa Coffee, Starbucks and airlines, but which no longer requires as much due to the lockdown. 

Mrs Feddes, who has been farming at JoJo’s Dairy in Wanborough, Swindon, for 12 years, said: ‘It is utterly desperate. There is a need for milk – homeless people, hospitals. There are starving people in the world and this is just so frustrating. 

‘Milk is needed left, right and centre, there has to be a way for us to supply it. We need to find a way to use it. There are so many people without milk at the moment, it is really silly.’ 

A stock image of dairy cows grazing in the English countryside

In a bid not to waste any more, she and husband Jonathan have started pasteurizing as much as they can themselves and selling it in bottles at half price to the local community. 

Mrs Feddes said: ‘I need to look after the farm and the animals, and just do not have the time to bottle up and deliver to local businesses. We are desperate for local help to solve this supply chain issue. Cows will keep producing milk, so we can’t just not milk them.’ 

Ministers must act now, says union 

Farmers yesterday demanded help to cope with having to throw away milk, collapsing meat prices and crops being left to rot in the fields. 

Industry leaders claim food producers have been left out of the Government’s coronavirus rescue efforts. 

The National Farmers’ Union held emergency talks with Environment Secretary George Eustice yesterday to discuss the crisis in the dairy industry. 

Stark images have emerged of farmers forced to throw away gallons of fresh milk, largely because coffee shops, restaurants and the wider food service industry has been shut down. 

This same issue means there has been a collapse in demand for prime cuts of beef, including high value steaks and roasting joints, and lamb, which is normally a huge seller at Easter. 

Beef farmers are getting less for carcasses and the National Sheep Association said lamb was down by £50 a head. 

Vegetable, fresh produce and fruit growers warn the loss of workers from Europe means there is a real risk crops will rot.  

Industry trade body Dairy UK wrote an urgent letter to Mr Eustice a week ago asking for help. 

His department, Defra, said it was looking at support measures. It asked the Government to buy surplus milk under a market support regime that was originally drawn up by the EU. 

Surplus fresh milk can be diverted to longer life products such as butter, cheese, UHT milk and milk powder. 

However, prices are lower and this system is at capacity. NFU president Minette Batters said: ‘For weeks now, we have been flagging to government in our daily calls the issues within the dairy sector and working with Defra to try and find solutions. But the situation is becoming untenable. 

‘There may be at least 2,000 dairy farmers suffering severe financial pressure and that number is growing by the day.’ 

Mr Eustice said the talks were constructive and farmers could take advantage of business loans of up to £3million being made available by the Treasury.

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