Sarah Todd: The dairy crisis: are supermarket shoppers to blame?

MILK has got people talking. The penny has finally dropped among consumers that dairy farmers aren’t being paid what the white stuff costs to produce.

Tell us something we don’t know. As a beef farmer’s daughter, the price of a Sunday roast or piece of steak at the supermarket checkout has long borne no resemblance to what our family gets at the abattoir.

It must be the same for other sectors. Pork, lamb, vegetables, fruit. Surely there’s a huge mark-up on what the producer actually gets at the farm gate on all of them?

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This is our fault. We’ve let the supermarkets take over our lives. We like the price-slashing and bargain hunting.

Let’s face facts. It gives us a buzz if we find items reduced. But then – when all the butchers, greengrocers and other independent retailers are out of business – let’s not play the innocent when there is no competition and the big boys charge whatever they want.

Or, in the case of milk, cheapen a product that is so intrinsic to our weekly shop and use it as a loss leader, practically giving it away in some silly price war.

Dry cleaning, newspapers and magazines, stationary, photo processing, prescription services, bakeries, banking, insurance… supermarkets have swept into all these areas – and so many more besides – and we’ve let them. We should hang our heads in shame.

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It’s not easy though, is it? Newly-married, with no children and a decent salary, it was easy to support independent retailers. To pick and choose. Life gets in the way and a big, less-discerning swoop at the supermarket ends up being the order of the day. People like me need a balance between bespoke, artisan, pricey products and the ethical questions raised by supermarket shopping.

This correspondent’s compromise is a mammoth once-monthly supermarket shop and “bobbing out” to the baker, butcher and greengrocer to fill in the gaps. Oh yes, not forgetting the milkman – remember them? – who is also kind enough to bring the ‘papers.

His prices have never been looked at since all this hoo-hah over the cost of milk. They are certainly higher than what we’d pay at the supermarket but a) we don’t have to lug it home and b) it’s supporting two local businesses; the milkman’s family and the Dales dairy that supplies him.

We shouldn’t, as a nation, have turned our backs on milkmen. It was wrong. There are some services that are about so much more than a simple transaction.

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This sounds shocking for a writer, but living about five miles from the nearest shop there is no way we’d get a newspaper if the milkman didn’t bring it. We wouldn’t get in the car and make a special journey.

Supermarkets provide jobs, convenience – most are open much later than the average high street shop – and through bulk buying can offer reduced prices on some (not all) items. There’s a lot to be said about getting everything from under one roof. But we have to look at our shopping habits if we are going to avoid sob stories like the dairy industry’s. At the risk of repetition, we can’t keep taking their offers and then complain when somebody – the producers – get their fingers burnt.

There’s the old saying that if something seems too good to be true it probably is. Surely this is the case with supermarket milk? It has been too good to be true and now the dairy farmers are paying the price.

We need to rethink our relationships with supermarkets. We aren’t going to live without them – not now – but maybe we can stop ourselves putting (sorry about the bad pun) all our eggs in one basket.

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Nobody has liked to hear about the farmers who are getting less for their milk than it costs to produce. It leaves a very sour taste.

There have been some calls to make milk a Fairtrade product; with the farmers protected like those who produce coffee beans and similar products overseas. That’s food for thought, but it can’t be just the dairy farmers. Their plight has been brilliant at focusing consumers’ minds, but – as we’ve said – they are not the only ones that are struggling to make ends meet.

Thinking aloud; there are so many more areas that supermarkets have got their claws into than the list this piece first rattled off. Coffee shops, clothing, floristry are a further three to trip off the tongue. Us punters are daft enough to lap it all up. To look around gormless and wonder why there are so many empty shops in town centres.

A wise person once gave this useful piece of advice; it’s easy to bring your prices down but hard to put them up. This is so true. We cheapen our wonderful British produce at our peril. But then, it’s the offers and deals that maybe make the difference between a hard-up family having a good meal or not. Crying over spilt, or rather underpriced, milk isn’t the answer.

Sarah Todd is a former editor of Yorkshire Life magazine. She is a farmer’s daughter, mother and journalist specialising in country life.

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