Rory Stewart, MP for Penrith and The Border, on Saturday held a ‘dairy surgery’ at Sewborwens Farm, Newton Rigg, attended by dozens of local dairy farmers. The first event of its kind in Penrith and The Border, the surgery was designed to allow farmers to speak about their experiences of the current dairy crisis and to discuss potential solutions with the local MP. At the end of the meeting Rory pledged to take to Westminster “the need for confident leadership to help strengthen our dairy industry for generations to come”.

Attendees included not only farmers, but local councillors, veterinarians, agricultural accountants, an agricultural chaplain, and many more. Topics covered included the supermarket monopolies and their influence on product price; the importance of labelling and marketing, ensuring that local milk is bought locally; the need to address issues of future food security; and the steps government is taking to ensure that cash-flow difficulties are eased for farmers, by prioritising SFPs for dairy farmers, and pushing HMRC to show flexibility in connection with filing of annual tax returns.

Responding to calls from attendees that more guidance and support from government was required, Rory listened to a wide range of suggestions about how to strengthen the dairy industry to withstand future global volatility.

Speaking at the event he said: “This is not just about the wider global market. This is about supporting our dairy farmers and the dairy industry through a range of initiatives: for example, modelling export on countries such as New Zealand and Ireland; persuading government to invest more heavily in processing units, so that our own milk is being processed and packaged in this country; ensuring our local institutions and organisations buy and promote local milk; working with the groceries ombudsman to break up the monopolies that are forcing producers into untenable contracts, and to get all supermarkets to pay a fair price for milk; and investing in building dairy brands recognised the world over. If we are serious about competing in global markets, we need to make Britain have the best processing capacity. I will now be arranging meetings with Defra, the Groceries Adjudicator, and the Treasury to discuss potential initiatives that could transform the dairy sector in a really radical way.”

Veterinarian David Black of Paragon Vets said: “We’re grateful to Rory for convening this important meeting. Lots of industries live on the back of dairy farms, so it doesn’t just affect farmers themselves. Currently, we are swinging on a knife edge. It’s all very well to say that the markets will balance, but meanwhile we are devaluing the product to the consumer. Government needs to bring pressure to bear so that the consumer values our milk more.”

Rory concluded with a plea to dairy farmers across the constituency to please stay in touch: “I have a lot to learn from your ideas and thoughts, so please keep coming back to me. The biggest message for me, which I am taking to Westminster, is that we could do much more, and better, and that government needs to be more engaged in the industry. I will continue pushing government to make sure dairy farmers’ immediate cashflow problems are supporting. Secondly, I will discuss with ministers how to increase the industry’s ambition, but strengthening processing, supporting on exports, and pushing into new markets. And, locally, we will look at ways to strengthen the Cumbrian brand and push schools, organisations, and councils to buy local milk.”

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